February 6, 2016
Smoke, Mirrors and Fuzzy Math Not Fooling Wisconsin Taxpayers Anymore:
Lawmakers Break Promise Not to Fund Vouchers at the Expense of Public School Students
SUN PRAIRIE—In the face of closed government maneuvering that could cost public schools $22 million in lost teachers, programs and services, advocates from around the state have said enough is enough. It’s time to reinvest in what makes the Badger State great—the public schools that are the heart and soul of every community.
Public education advocates from Superior to Kenosha and LaCrosse to Peshtigo have once again rallied to demand legislators do the right thing for our children.
Wisconsin must do better if the future is ever going to get brighter.
Public school advocates from around the state have been watching The Capitol closely this session, after the concerns they raised in an unprecedented outpouring of public dissent during the last state budget at least blunted the attack on public education.
In that session — and on party line votes — the Republican majority froze funding on public schools desperately in need of resources for children while expanding the private school voucher scheme and including (in a midnight addition that never had a public hearing) a controversial special needs vouchers program that was opposed by every disability rights group in the state.
Part of that budget — the part that said public school children wouldn’t be hurt by the expansion of the voucher scheme — seems to have been a lie and another broken promise.
The Republican majority is trying to push through a bill limiting when districts can go to referendum (in order to offset state aid cuts going to private schools) that could be voted on soon. They also slipped in a totally unrelated amendment to the Special Needs Voucher “trailer” bill (AB 751) that would change the way the private school tuition entitlements are funded. (For more information on the bill and today’s actions, see these articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal).
Make no mistake, if these changes go through, public schools will lose millions of dollars in teachers, programs and services as money comes directly out of their classrooms to pay for students who already attend private schools.
Thanks to immediate backlash and public outcry from the partners in the Wisconsin Public Education Network and advocates from all over Wisconsin, that bill was pulled from the brink of a vote by the Assembly Committee on Education, Feb. 4. The threat to our children is not past, however. Sources say the committee is likely to take it up as early as Wednesday, Feb. 10.
The rescheduling gives education supporters precious little time to share their concerns about a game-changing proposal that never had a public hearing.
Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos has been trying to justify the amendment—which only he is sponsoring—by claiming that schools have been “double counting” voucher students to exaggerate the impacts of the program.
The numbers don’t lie. No matter how confusing the amendment language or convoluted the funding formula, more and more money is coming out of public school classrooms to pay for private school entitlements. This latest move could siphon an estimated $22 million more away from schools still reeling from the largest cuts in history—and some of the largest cuts in the country-just a few years ago.
Taxpayers around the state are furious.
“All of the conversations, all of the polling, points to the fact that the people of Wisconsin do not want this. They want fully and fairly funded public schools. They do not want the failed experiments of Milwaukee forced on them,” says Jenni Hofschulte, a Milwaukee Public Schools parent.
“The negligence of thought and the brashness of all of this is an outrage. The voucher experiment continues to fail Milwaukee. So why expand it? Just say it: ‘This is part of a national agenda.’”
“Even while we are still trying to clean up the mess here in Milwaukee,” Hofschulte said, “legislators in Madison insist on expanding the program, knowing it will dilute educational opportunities for all children statewide. It’s wrong.”
In Eau Claire, a district with both voucher students and very strong public schools, board members are frustrated by these last-minute attempts to punish public schools to pay for expensive entitlements put forward last summer.
Chris Hambuch-Boyle, an Eau Claire school board member, speaking as an individual said, “Districts like Eau Claire that were good stewards of our tax dollars are being penalized for that now and have no leeway to pay for these vouchers. How does this help the 875,000 kids in public schools versus the thousands in private schools? “
Hambuch-Boyle said, “When something is put before the public without time to vet it with the public, to promote deep understanding of what it is, then I can’t help but think there’s an ulterior motive. Let’s find out what that motive is. Quit hiding behind amendments and tell us what it is.”
Despite the repeated claim that the statewide voucher scheme largely serves parents who are unhappy with their local public schools, the data says something entirely different.
Department of Public Instruction (DPI), said a whopping 87 percent of taxpayer-funded private school tuition voucher recipients either already attended private schools or didn’t attend school at all in the previous year. Only 12% of new voucher recipients were students who’d previously been enrolled in Wisconsin public schools.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) calculates that the state will spend $1.1 billion on voucher schools from 2011 to 2017. That’s over a $1 billion siphoned away from public schools at a time when the most recent poll tells us 57 percent of Wisconsinites agree our public schools need more money.
Meanwhile, despite months of strong opposition from around the state and a full day of testimony, a bill that could severely limit local voters’ ability to help its own children moved forward. Right now taxpayers can vote to raise their own property taxes to maintain quality public education as money is skimmed from neighborhood schools and sent into the voucher scheme. Assembly Bill 481 (and its partner Senate Bill 355) severely and negatively impact that local control.
At the crowded hearing for that bill, Pepin Area Schools Superintendent Bruce Quinton summed up the frustration people all over the state have expressed: “I never thought I’d be here lecturing Republicans about local control. Our stance is firm on this matter. School referendums are a local matter.”
Communities from all over Wisconsin weighed in against this anti-public school agenda. Steve Sedlmayr, superintendent of the Alma School District, explained,
“Here’s why this bill is there right now: Alma doesn’t have voucher kids, but the tax bills are out and people are finding that the money’s going directly to kids going to private schools. Property taxes are going up because of what they [Republican legislators] did, and this [amendment] is an attempt to remedy that. It all boils down to hurting the kids in the public schools even more to pay for students to go to private schools. If you put the whole package [of bills limiting local control of school funding] together, you’re in big trouble.”
“Taxes went up 30 to 35 percent and people are starting to pay attention to what’s going on in Madison,” Sedlmayer said. “Where’s Tommy Thompson when you need him?”
Kathryn Carley, a parent advocate with Green Bay Advocates for Public Education, worries that the Republican majority has an agenda to “destroy our public education system.” For Carley, like many others, it boils down to local control and the need to hold legislators accountable.
“This brazen attempt to take away parents’ ability to support their child’s school — when the state does not —shows how willing these lawmakers are to put their own private interests above our state’s future. They strangle our budgets and rob our children of opportunities, expecting us to eventually give up the fight. Wisconsin parents are watching, and we will be voting come November.
In Appleton, citizen education advocates are organizing to urge their neighbors to contact legislators and share their concerns. Like other advocacy groups around the state, they’re calling on legislators to reject any amendments to the special needs vouchers trailer bill (AB 751) and to vote against any bill that limits a local control of local schools (like AB 481/SB 355).
What’s at stake is nothing short of democracy, said Ann Muenster, Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education (FCAPE). “(Rep.) Robin Vos and those who will profit from robbing our public schools betray the public’s trust.”
“When people in Madison play political games with our schools, kids lose and communities lose every time,” said Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) coordinator Heather DuBois Bourenane.
“The people of Wisconsin know that strong public schools build strong citizens, great workers and critical thinkers who will build the future. These schools are the very heart and soul of our communities. We need to come together now to raise awareness in our communities and to hold lawmakers accountable. We cannot allow politics to pit us against each other and undermine the schools we depend on for future success.”
DuBois Bourenane invited advocates for public schools and the tens of thousands of children they serve to connect through the Wisconsin Public Education Network at WisconsinNetwork.org or hdb@WisconsinNetwork.org and support the local public schools that are at the center of their communities. “If citizens want to do their part to protect their local schools, they can start by connecting with people all over the state already working hard to do just that. The first step is to make that local connection. The second step is to make sure lawmakers are listening.”
The Wisconsin Public Education Network urged citizens concerned about these latest attacks on public schools to join education leaders and show support by writing and calling their own legislators (find yours at http://maps.legis.wisconsin.gov/) and Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos (Rep.Vos@legis.wisconsin.gov / (888) 534-0063). The members of the Assembly Education Committee are listed here (emails follow):
- Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt (Chair) R-Fond du Lac 888-529-0052
- Representative Joel Kitchens (Vice-Chair) R-Sturgeon Bay 888-482-0001
- Representative John Jagler R-Watertown 888-534-0037
- Representative Dean Knudson R-Hudson 888-529-0030
- Representative Jessie Rodriguez R-Oak Creek 888-534-0021
- Representative Rob Brooks R-Saukville 888-534-0060
- Representative Cody Horlacher R-Mukwonago 888-529-0033
- Representative David Murphy R-Greenville 888-534-0056
- Representative Romaine Quinn R-Chetek 888-534-0075
- Representative Rob Hutton R-Brookfield 888-534-0013
- Representative Cindi Duchow R-Pewaukee 888-534-0099
- Representative Sondy Pope D-Cross Plains 888-534-0080
- Representative Christine Sinicki D-Milwaukee 888-534-0020
- Representative Eric Genrich D-Green Bay 888-534-0090
- Representative Mandela Barnes D-Milwaukee 888-534-0011
- Representative Dave Considine D-Baraboo 888-534-0081
John Forester of the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance called on school leaders to take just such action: “I guess the damage inflicted upon public schools and public school children in the biennial budget just wasn’t enough for some in the Legislature. These Committee members need to feel very uncomfortable over this vote. Let’s get to it!”
Here are some talking points on Amendment 2 to AB751 from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) that you might find helpful when making your calls and writing your legislators:
- This amendment will financially penalize all public school districts in which new enrollees in the statewide voucher program reside–at least 142 public school districts based on current year enrollment in the Racine and statewide parental choice programs–by reducing their revenue limit authority, in some cases by hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars. The amendment means districts will lose thousands of dollars ($4,000 or more on average) for each district resident pupil who opts to enroll in a private choice (voucher) school.
- This penalty is proposed at a time when:
- revenue limits have been frozen (with no per pupil adjustment) for both years of a state budget cycle for the first time since revenue limits were imposed in 1993-94;
- 57 percent of respondents to the Marquette University Law School Poll say local schools are receiving too little funding from state; and
- Governor Walker is pledging additional resources for public education, by committing to spending every penny of (savings from) a proposed restructuring of state employee health care coverage into public education.
- The amendment will negatively affect additional public school districts in future years as additional private schools begin participating in the Racine and statewide parental choice programs.
- The amendment was introduced barely 24 hours before the executive session on the bill. This lack of notice, coupled with a lack of a public hearing on the amendment, and the fact that the amendment relates to a wholly new subject matter not contained in the original bill has denied the public an opportunity to weigh in on the amendment and the negative impact it would have on school districts. This lack of transparency is disturbing.
- To our knowledge, no analysis of this change has yet been made public by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Committee members are being asked to vote on an amendment without even knowing how it will affect the school districts they represent, let alone any other school districts.