Federal Budget Could Pit Wisconsin's Public, Choice Schools For Money

May 22, 2017

Public and private schools may have to further compete against each other for students and families, if the Trump administration rolls out an anticipated new tax credit.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was expected to detail a new Trump administration strategy for school funding Monday in Indianapolis. Politicos expect the plan to offer more money for school choice – an area the president has made clear he prioritizes, since the outset of his presidency. 

“Families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or homeschool that is right for them,” Trump told a joint session of Congress in February.

According to reports, the administration’s plan is to create a tax credit for individuals or corporations who donate money toward tuition costs at private schools, so families can send their kids there. The program could channel billions of dollars to those schools.

What could that shift mean for Wisconsin, which already has a fairly expansive voucher program?

Public school advocates aren’t thrilled about the idea.

Wisconsin superintendent Tony Evers has anticipated an expanded focus on choice, but still shakes his head.

“It’s a disaster,” Evers says. “It’s pretty simple.”

Wisconsin has a long history with parental choice. Milwaukee’s 27-year-old program is one of the longest-running in the country, so public and private school advocates here have long competed for resources. 

Evers says the feds’ desire to boost choice dollars would further undercut the public system.

“When we as a nation or as a state are deciding that we ought to subsidize kids in private or parochial schools, that has an impact because it costs money,” Evers says. “When [public schools] have a shortage of money, they start on the outside of the classroom and work in – counseling services, social work services, psychology services. All of those things kind of get hammered first, and then eventually into the classroom.”

On the other side of the coin, the prospect of more money for expanded school options excites choice advocates – like Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.

“The status quo, the education establishment – they don’t like change,” Bender says. “If they’re very used to having a funding stream, whether it’s working or not, they’re not going to want to give it up.”

Bender is pleased that the feds want to boost funding for different school options. But, he says, even choice advocates have concerns about how Washington might distribute the dollars, and whether the feds could decide how to divvy up the money.

Bender thinks states that already have their own choice programs – including Wisconsin – would prefer the money come straight to its systems.

“More resources, more flexibility from existing law, given under state control would be a positive. However, if it’s a new federal program that comes with its own rules and strings attached to the resources, that isn’t necessarily a big winner,” he explains.

“We have a particular process that works here in Wisconsin,” Bender continues. “We’d rather have resources injected into the existing program we’ve been working on regularly for more than 20 years.”

No matter what the details are of the plan the feds roll out, congress still has to approve the administration’s budget.