LA CROSSE, Wis. -- School choice isn't new to the state of Wisconsin. In fact, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to start a private school voucher program in 1990. And now it's expanding.
In Milwaukee, the new voucher system removes the cap on the number of students eligible. Now 65% of Milwaukee families can take part. The voucher system is also expanding into the Racine Unified School District over the next three years.
"If you're a low income or middle-class family in Milwaukee.... if that family opts, if they've got kids going to school, they say next year I don't like the public school down the way. I've got a concern more often than not. It's a concern about safety or the performance of that particular school, they can now... it's a lottery system. So, its not... some of the complaints are it skims off the top. No, it's a lottery system to get into those schools," said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
But some public school educators say while the intent of providing a private school choice to families who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford that type of schooling could be good... it could also lead to segregation.174686
"My biggest concern in the voucher system is... there's always the difference between intent and impact," said Randy Nelson, La Crosse School District superintendent. And while sometimes the intent could be considered worthy in some areas, the impact could sometimes be more to divide more of these very same issues, whether its socioeconomic or others... that it could do more to separate then to bring together and level the playing field."
But despite concerns of this nature, beginning this fall, families in Milwaukee and some in Racine can get a $6,400 voucher to send their child to a private school.
"From a public education perspective, I think it's pretty easy and logical to look at a voucher system as a threat to public education in that the basic design is to take the school funding that comes along with a student from virtue of state aid and our tax payers, and pull it out of the public schools and move it into perhaps any entity or enterprise which could be private as well," said Nelson.
But Governor Walker says his intent is to improve all schools in Milwaukee and Racine, both public and private, by offering more choices through the school voucher program.
"In those two areas, it is to take under-performing schools and take low and middle-class families give them another option. Not only for the option of those choice schools, but we found over time, is that it's helped increase the performance of the Milwaukee schools in the past that were under-performing... has helped bring them up as well. It's improved graduation rates, and, ultimately, I want to see more people graduate," said Governor Walker.
However, the state school superintendent says this year's Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam results show voucher students score similarly or worse than their counterparts in Milwaukee Public Schools.
"I'm not sure that expansion of vouchers in and of itself is going to improve education. Data really hasn't shown that," said Tony Evers, Wisconsin state superintendent.
Lisa: "If they're not doing better, doesn't this data prove that the voucher system isn't uplifting public education?"
Governor Walker: "No, for a couple of reasons. One, the scores overall, while they're lower than the rest of the state, for MPS, they actually for the last 20 years have gone up because the competition."
"I think one of the challenges along the lines in terms of competition has been are we always comparing apples to apples when we talk about, 'well we think we can do this better if we added this competition,'" said Nelson.
Another concern among some educators... do private schools have the resources to accommodate students with special needs and can the private schools continue to be selective if they're accepting school vouchers supported by taxpayer dollars.?
"The choice schools that participate still have to take individuals regardless of background or individual or physical disability. They still have an option to go to those choice schools. They qualify for that," said Governor Walker.
However, it should be noted that according to the Wisconsin Education Association Council or WEAC choice schools are only required to offer services to special needs students if they can be provided with minor and inexpensive adjustments.
Governor Walker says his ultimate goal is to provide exceptional schools and education in our state.
"I think the key is overall reform," said Governor Walker. We don't view choice as the sole answer. We view it as one piece."
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