Proposed voucher expansion could hurt Wisconsin public schools

Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates a $48 million hit to public schools over 2 years

Wisconsin’s public school systems could take another financial hit when it comes to vouchers.

Gov. Walker wants to increase the number of students allowed into the program.

The voucher system in Wisconsin continues to grow in popularity, up 4 percent from last year, but the state only allows 1,000 students to participate every year across the state. But a new push by some Wisconsin Republican legislators could lift the cap and make vouchers unlimited to students who meet the requirements.

However, Todd Goldsmith, president of Aquinas Catholic Schools in La Crosse, said unlimited doesn’t necessarily mean a free-for-all.

“If the cap would be lifted, we still have to submit information to the Department of Public Instruction to limit what we could essentially be able to handle with the resources we have,” said Goldsmith. “We have a class size recommendation set by educators and parents and we try not to exceed that. And in addition to that, we have only so much space.”

But if Aquinas has room to fill, it would be able to take more voucher students.

Randy Nelson, the superintendent of the La Crosse School District, sees the proposed change in a different light.

“When this was first rolled out, we wanted to provide opportunities for children in public schools to go to a private school,” said Nelson. “I think at the end of the day, what was really intended is completely different from what the impact is.”

According to the DPI, about 86 percent of the students across the state who want a voucher are already in a private school. Only 14 percent of those eligible are from public schools. So the question has to be asked, is there a choice?

“There’s really not, and what is happening in a lot of cases is those entities accepting private vouchers are then checking the income levels of parents and saying you would qualify, fill out the voucher so we can get the dollars associated with you,” said Nelson.

Nelson believes choice is important but he hopes it doesn’t continue to take away from the public education system.

“Ultimately what we have constituted in the past as  a public school is changing and I think the ultimate change is public education dollars, taxpayer dollars can be used for private, or religious-based education. It’s just something really different,” said Nelson.

Although legislators may choose to lift the cap on the voucher program, that does not mean anyone can apply. The only students who are eligible for the program are students whose families earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

If the student cap is lifted from the voucher program, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the public schools would take a $48 million hit over the next two years.

The school districts won’t know specifics about the voucher program until Walker’s budget is signed, which is expected to be July 1.