- Associated Press - Friday, February 19, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin’s public schools couldn’t raise property taxes to recover more than their losses when students use vouchers to leave for other schools under legislation the state Assembly passed Thursday.

The state’s school voucher program subsidizes private school tuition. The state pays for the program by cutting aid to public schools that lose students to voucher students. This year, those aid payments equated to $7,214 for every child in kindergarten and $7,860 for every high school student. For example, if a first-grader used vouchers to leave a public school for a private one, that public school would lose $7,214 in state aid.

Republicans included language in the 2015-2017 state budget allowing schools to raise property taxes to offset such losses. The provision allows districts to generate more than their actual losses, however, because it lets them raise taxes up to their per-student revenue limit. Typically, that limit is around $10,000. So the public school that loses $7,214 in aid when the first-grader leaves could raise taxes to generate about $10,000.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, 142 districts that lost students through the voucher program this school year lost a combined total of $16.1 million. Those districts raised property taxes enough to generate $21.4 million, or roughly $5 million more than their actual losses.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, helped design the budget language. But he says the provision was “a drafting error” that resulted in property tax hikes and proposed an amendment to let districts recoup only their actual losses.

“It takes away the skim that property tax payers were paying for,” Vos said of his amendment, which is attached to a bill that would allow disabled students to enroll more easily in voucher schools.

Democrats argued that Vos’ amendment should have been offered as a separate bill and said it will damage public schools. They also criticized Vos’ “drafting error” statement.

“When you sit down and craft the mechanisms for funding voucher schools purposefully and then call it mis-drafting, I don’t think there’s much honesty or integrity in that,” said Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains.

The Senate approved the original bill on Tuesday. The Assembly approved the measure with Vos’ amendment just before midnight during a packed floor session that began at 11 a.m. Thursday. Vos had said Thursday would be the chamber’s last floor day for the two-year legislative session.

The Assembly’s approval sends the bill back to the Senate. That chamber is expected to convene at least one more time in March before the session ends. If the Senate approves the change, the measure would go to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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