MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal aims to freeze out Wisconsin’s successful School Choice program while doing nothing to get students back to in-person learning.
The governor’s $91 billion biennial budget (2021-23) calls for a number of non-fiscal policy initiatives. As he did in his last budget plan in 2019, Evers proposes putting an enrollment cap on all of Wisconsin’s school choice programs — Milwaukee, Racine and statewide.
The voucher programs serve students whose families are low-income. That includes Milwaukee and Racine families at 300 percent of the federal poverty limit, and under 220 percent of the limit in the statewide program. Evers’ cap would begin in fiscal year 2023, based on enrollment from the 2022 school year.
As Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) Research Director Will Flanders notes, the enrollment cap may sound innocuous, but “the practical effect would be to prevent additional students from accessing the program.”
“Make no mistake: this freeze would make the programs unviable for many schools that participate,” Flanders said.
Enrollment in the statewide program (Wisconsin Parental Choice Program) currently is capped at 5 percent of district enrollment. The number is set to increase by 1 percent per year until the caps come off in 2025, when the programs reach 10 percent of district enrollment.
Flanders said setting an enrollment cap next year would limit choice enrollment to 6% of district enrollment.
In the past eight years, enrollment in the statewide choice program has increased by more than 2,200 percent to 11,740 students annually, according to Wisconsin Federation for Children State Director Justin Moralez.
“Governor Evers’ renewed attacks on Wisconsin’s successful Parental Choice Programs is a disappointment, especially at a time when so many families are struggling with unending school closures that threaten their mental, academic and economic stability,” Moralez said in a statement.
Evers’ budget proposal also would eliminate the Office of Educational Opportunity, which authorizes and oversees public charter schools. While it has only authorised three schools so far this year, OEO represents a “promising avenue for charter authorization in districts that have proven to be unfriendly to charter schools,” Flanders said.
“This problem is made clear when one considers high-performing charter schools like Carmen Schools in Milwaukee, that face tremendous difficulty in getting reauthorized by Milwaukee Public Schools despite being one of the best performing schools in the city,” he said. “Wisconsin ought to be encouraging more charter schools, not fewer. Closing off a new avenue for charter growth in Wisconsin would be a huge step backwards.”
School Choice advocates assert Evers’ assault on alternatives to Wisconsin’s public schools systems is more payback to teachers unions that have selfishly kept students locked out of in-person education for the better part of the year. Despite the science showing the low-risk of re-opening schools amid the pandemic, Evers has remained silent on the urgent call to get kids back to class.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council’s PAC was one of the governor’s biggest campaign contributors in 2020, a year that saw Evers rake in $3.9 million in contributions. WEAC has fought to maintain virtual learning and keep teachers and kids out of classrooms.
“There is a clear divide in education in Wisconsin today — not between public and private, but between open and closed. One small, but very influential camp, is utilizing resources to force kids to stay home, the other is working night and day to provide in-person instruction in a safe environment,” said Jim Bender, Government Affairs and Public Policy consultant for School Choice Wisconsin. “Locking parents out of the Parental Choice Programs, just as some desire to lock all students out of schools, is not based on the data, science or the best interest of families.”