- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The Legislature’s budget-writing committee will consider increasing funding for Wisconsin public schools by $75 per student in the second year of the next budget, the Republican co-chair of the panel said Monday, while still diverting millions to pay for expanding the statewide voucher program.

The Joint Finance Committee was scheduled to vote Tuesday on making changes to education spending in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget before sending the revised plan to the Republican-controlled Legislature for voting sometime in June.

Walker, a Republican who is likely to enter the 2016 presidential race, spoke in support of abolishing Wisconsin’s voucher program enrollment caps Monday at a national policy meeting in New Orleans of the American Federation for Children. Walker has received more than $292,000 in campaign donations from the DeVos family, which created the powerful pro-voucher national lobbying group.

But Walker has received criticism for the way he would expand the voucher program, resulting in lower payments per student than schools currently receive. He’s also gotten a bipartisan backlash for proposing to cut K-12 public school funding by $127 million, which amounts to $150 per student, next year. The money would be restored in the following year, but total funding for schools would be flat over Walker’s two-year budget.

While Republicans initially talked about simply restoring Walker’s $127 million cut, which would still keep school funding flat, they are now advocating for putting more money in for the 2016-2017 school year.

“I’m pushing hard for that because a zero increase will be hell to pay when you go home,” said Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican on the budget committee from Ripon.

Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget committee, said his goal is to increase funding by an additional $75 per student in the second year of the budget after holding it flat the first year. He called that a “reasonable” increase.

“Certainly it’s a move in the right direction,” said John Forester, lobbyist for the School Administrators Alliance, which represents public school district leaders.

Forester said he needed to see more details about the proposal before commenting further.

The budget committee was also expected to vote on expanding vouchers.

Momentum is growing for creating a new funding mechanism similar to public school open enrollment that would cost public schools an estimated $48 million over two years to pay for vouchers.

Under the plan floated by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, every public school student could apply for a voucher. And similar to open enrollment students - where they move from one public school to another - the money to educate the student in private school would be subtracted from aid sent to the district losing the student.

That approach, which would apply to vouchers everywhere except the 25-year-old program in Milwaukee, is winning support among Republicans and supporters of voucher schools. Jim Bender, president of pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, supports the proposal in part because the amount of the voucher would not drop as it would under Walker’s original approach.

Nygren said the open enrollment model “makes some sense” for the same reason as Bender.

Olsen, who called it a “good proposal,” said having funding for private voucher schools come out of the same pot allocated to public schools would benefit both because they will be united in pressing the Legislature to spend more money.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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