Property Taxpayers to Fund Private School Tuition Under New Bill

Legislative Update: Feb. 25, 2016

Last week, while you were sleeping, in a midnight vote, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill that changes the way private school tuition vouchers work in Wisconsin, shifting the responsibility for paying for these entitlements from the State to local property tax payers.

4 Republicans and all Assembly Democrats voted NO on the “clean” Senate version of SB 615 (basically the original, unamended AB 751), after Republicans tacked on a “compromise” amendment that will cost public schools an additional $5.3 million next year. After declaring the unrelated amendment germane on a party-line vote and rejecting an amendment from Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) that would have helped the Racine (the district hardest hit by voucher expansion and the compromise amendment), the bill passed with a 56-37 vote. Reps. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), Warren Petryk (R-Eleva), Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), and Nancy VanderMeer (R-Tomah) joined all Democrats in voting NO. The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it on March 15.

This “compromise” is no cause for celebration, though it is heartening that the massive outpouring of concern around the state had some impact on the severity of the cuts. Over the course of the past few weeks, legislators haggled behind closed doors to hash out proposals to take $22 million, then $14 million, then $5 million more away from public schools.

Not one of these proposals saw a public hearing, since the bill to which the amendments were attached was an unrelated trailer bill to fix some technical issues regarding the so-called “special needs vouchers” that were passed (without public hearing) as part of the omnibus budget last summer. Parents, taxpayers, board members, administrators, educators, budget experts — all were shut out of the process as legislators played politics with decisions that impact the hearts of our communities.

What taxpayers need to know is that every single one of these moves shifts the burden of responsibility for paying for private school tuition away from the state and onto local taxpayers, even as local control of local schools is being chipped away and those private schools remain unaccountable to taxpayers. This move comes on top of a biennial budget that does not even fund our public schools at a level sufficient to keep up with inflation, forcing districts all over the state to go to referendum and raise their own taxes just to meet operating costs.

Simply put: they froze revenue limits and shifted the responsibility for funding private school tuition vouchers.

As Terri Phillips of the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance puts it, in essence what the legislature is telling school boards is, “We aren’t going to allow you to raise resources for your own schools, but we are going to force you to increase property taxes to pay for private schools and voucher expansion.”

Over 75% of students who now receive tax-payer funded tuition vouchers already attended private schools. The new formula launders money for private school vouchers through public school districts, meaning that they now “count” students who never even attended public schools. As private schools make plans to expand and renovate , public schools debate what they have to cut, what teachers they have to let go, what schools they have to shut down.

Pitting public vs private, neighbor vs neighbor, Republican vs Democrat, is part of the larger problem here. When those in power play politics with our children and our communities, they create tensions that undermine not just the quality of public education, but the quality of public life, in Wisconsin.

Jeri McGinley made this point crystal clear in a letter to the editor of the Stevens Point Journal:

The message from legislators is clear: They will support private schools but not public schools. And they’ll force the public schools, and their taxpayers, to pay for the private schools.

About the author: Wisconsin Public Education Network

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