- Associated Press - Friday, May 15, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Public school districts could face an additional $48 million hit over the next two years under the voucher program included in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget, according to a new memo from state financial analysts.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo obtained by The Associated Press on Friday provides new details about Walker’s proposal to lift the 1,000-student statewide cap on voucher participation and create a program similar to open enrollment.

Under the plan, any public school student could apply for a voucher. Private school students enrolling in kindergarten, first grade or ninth grade would also be eligible.

Similar to open enrollment, students would receive funding from their district of residence to attend a voucher school under the proposal. The memo sets out that voucher students in kindergarten through 8th grade would receive $7,210, and high school students would receive $7,856.

Public school districts currently pay $6,635 for each student who moves via open enrollment to another public district.

More than 3,540 students applied this year to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private and religious schools in the third year of the statewide program, more than triple the enrollment cap of 1,000, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said in a report Thursday. That number is up 4 percent from last year.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, requested the memo. His spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Voucher supporters say the program gives students in struggling public schools an opportunity to offset the cost of attending a private school.

Jim Bender, president of the group School Choice Wisconsin, said public school districts already pay to have students who move via open enrollment in other public school districts. He said applying additional payments for voucher students wouldn’t add much more to each district’s budget.

“It doesn’t seem to be causing any heartache when students go between public schools,” Bender said.

Opponents, primarily Democrats and public school advocates, say the program isn’t accountable to taxpayers and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education.

Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a statewide teachers union, said the state should support its public schools so students across the state have access to quality education.

“This week it was announced that 86 percent of voucher applicants for next year don’t even go to public school now,” Kippers said in a statement, referring to DPI’s report Thursday. “Meanwhile, public school students have fewer teachers and less one-on-one attention.”

The voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990, the first city in the country to offer the taxpayer subsidies to help poor children leave struggling schools. Since 2011, Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have expanded it.

Walker and Republicans created a voucher program in Racine, eliminated enrollment caps there and in Milwaukee and raised income limits to allow middle-class students to participate.

The number of students applying from public schools decreased from 633 last year to 526 this year, a difference of 107.

All applicants in the statewide program, whether they attend public or private schools, must meet income requirements. A single parent with three children can earn up to $44,828 per year. For a married couple with two children, the cutoff is $53,310 annually.

To qualify in Racine, an applicant’s family income must be less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That equates to $71,637 for a family of four.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bydanaferguson .


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