Area public education officials say the proposed statewide school voucher expansion would deal another blow to districts already reeling from past budget cuts.
“It obviously diverts much-needed funding,” said La Crosse schools Superintendent Randy Nelson, calling the expansion part of “a national movement, it appears, to privatize our public schools.”
The state Joint Finance Committee approved the voucher expansion early Wednesday as part of the proposed 2013-15 budget.
A provision to make private tuition tax deductible will further siphon state funds, he said.
Nelson described public schools as “good soldiers” when the state slashed almost $1 billion for public education two years ago.
“We lined up and said, ‘OK, we get it. You’ve got to balance the budget,’” he said. “It is just surprising that it’s happening again.”
Private schools, however, praised the move.
“It’s nice that it’s not just bound by where you live,” Aquinas Catholic Schools President Kurt Nelson said, calling the tax deduction “a huge help to our families.”
The change would “certainly expand the opportunity for parents to consider enrolling their child at Luther,” Onalaska Luther High School principal Paul Wichmann said.
The proposed voucher expansion is similar to a deal made public last week, extending the program beyond just Milwaukee and Racine but capping statewide enrollment at 500 students for the coming school year and 1,000 for 2014-15. Enrollment can’t go higher than 1 percent of the students in a public school district.
But legislators before Wednesday’s vote had not previously openly discussed the tax deduction, which would take away an estimated $30 million a year.
State Sen. Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat on the Joint Finance Committee, blasted the “middle-of-the- night, last motion,” adding, “I don’t think people were able to weigh in.”
She criticized the move as “misplaced priorities” and “privatizing education.”
But Nelson of Aquinas had hoped for a higher cap.
“I think the 500 is a little low,” he said, “particularly when it’s a statewide program.” Aquinas could add up to 232 students under the 1 percent cap, he said.
He disputed the idea vouchers represent a state endorsement of religious institutions.
“The voucher is going to the parents, and parents are making the choice,” he said. “We see it as the state isn’t cutting a check to private or religious schools.”
La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson didn’t buy that logic.
“At the end of the day, the taxpayer dollars are subsidizing that religious institution,” he said. “For a long time, we thought that was wrong.”
He also sees the move as an organized attack on public education.
“Given the fact that Wisconsin is only the fourth state in the union to adopt a voucher program … we seem to be trailblazers on this in a state that, by virtually all academic measures, has strong schools,” Randy Nelson said.
“That’s what makes me think that there are bigger things in play. It appears that there’s a significant amount of political influence on the issue coming from outside our state.”
State Rep. Lee Nerison, a Westby Republican who previously spoke against a statewide voucher expansion, wouldn’t say Thursday whether it would be enough to swing him away from party lines. He instead focused on the proposed enrollment caps he said “scaled back” the program.
“You only get one vote,” Nerison said. “There’s a lot of other things in the budget, too; there’s always things in the budget you don’t like.”
Rural school districts that have a smaller community tax base and depend more on state aid will be especially hard hit, Westby Superintendent Charles Norton said.
“The pain is a little bit stronger for us,” he said. “We are down to the bone. There is no fat, so to speak, to reduce.”