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Democrats take aim at school voucher plan

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Frank Schultz
June 6, 2013

Local Democratic lawmakers joined the chorus decrying the latest version of a state school voucher expansion.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee changed Gov. Scott Walker's proposal as it approved its budget legislation early Tuesday.

Walker's version would have limited the expansion to nine cities around the state, including Beloit. The Joint Finance version would open the doors to vouchers for any qualifying private school statewide.

"They are simply subsidizing the education of those who already attend private school. That is not how our tax dollars could best be spent," said Rep. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville. "After reviewing the committee's action, there is no doubt in my mind that the selection process of program participants will be a bureaucratic nightmare."

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction said the department's preliminary understanding of the legislation is that a private school would have to be already in operation, would have to provide proof of accreditation to participate, and would have to provide the department with an "intend to participate" notice.

It appears the intent is to have the program running in time for the start of the school year in September, department spokesman Patrick Gasper said.

Vouchers already are allowed in Milwaukee and Racine. The proposal would cap statewide enrollment outside of Milwaukee and Racine at 500 next year and 1,000 after that. Walker wanted unlimited enrollment after the second year.

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, was among those warning that the legislation is a step toward unlimited voucher enrollment in the future. Cullen noted the governor could make it so with a line-item veto.

"Make no mistake, this plan creates a statewide school voucher program that results in two separate school systems in Wisconsin, both paid for by taxpayers," Cullen said.

Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville, agreed.

"I think most people in every corner of the state are proud of their public schools and don't want to see them stripped of resources to fund a separate private school system,'' Kolste said.

Both houses of the Legislature will have to pass identical versions of the budget bill in the next few weeks. Kolste said she had little hope the voucher expansion would be removed from the bill.

"The private school voucher effort is a political movement, not an educational movement," Cullen said. "It is a top-down movement funded by tens of millions of dollars in out-of-state campaign contributions and the hiring of several highly-paid lobbyists."

Cullen said the problems of low test scores and graduation rates are not the public schools' fault.

"Far too many children live in disruptive homes with no discipline, no encouragement, no curfews and poor nutrition," Cullen said.

"When they arrive at school, they are unprepared to learn. The political voucher movement points the finger at public schools for these problems, which is not a fair assessment."

Cullen said parents have every right to send their children to private schools or to home-school them but that taxpayers should not be required to pay that cost.

"Despite such a dramatic change in the Republicans' voucher expansion proposal, all of this damage to public education is buried in the state budget bill, with no separate statewide public hearings on these significant changes," Cullen said.



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