Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Voucher Program

Wisconsin’s school voucher program is the subject of much discussion and legislative action. As the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance amends Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal, changes are being proposed to current law. It’s likely the program will be expanded, but the funding remains in doubt.

JCF action is not the final word on the budget and school vouchers. Both houses of the Legislature must approve, and the governor must sign it before it becomes law.

As vouchers travel through the legislative process, public school board members, teachers, staff, students, parents, taxpayers and administrators should all be concerned about the effect the voucher program will have on public education.

Funding for vouchers provided to parents to enroll their children in private schools has traditionally come from state aid to public schools. While the state aid formula for distributing state aid hasn’t changed, the overall fund has been reduced resulting in less state aid for each district, including ours.

Views of the voucher program are varied for several reasons. Some question academic accountability standards, others have concerns about oversight. There are doubts about the claimed success of voucher schools in terms of student achievement.

All of these concerns can be debated, but one result of the voucher program is undeniable – expanding voucher schools will result in a financial liability for Wisconsin’s public schools.

My concern is not so much with standards and oversight. If parents believe their children can get a better education at a private school, there should be no obstacles to enrollment in them. I am convinced parents are sincere in doing what they believe is best for their children.

My objections are not so much with private schools as they are with reducing funding for public education to support vouchers. Not only is funding for public schools reduced to support vouchers, public schools also see per pupil state aid reduced when enrollment drops as a result of students transferring to a private school.

We won’t know the exact financial effect vouchers will have on public education until the budget now being considered is signed into law. But, we must start planning for a likely reduction in funding. Any reductions may not have an effect until the 2015-16 school year, but we are already deep into next school year’s budget planning.

A local private school could have a dramatic effect on our budget. Rock County Christian School in Beloit received authorization for 58 new voucher students in addition to the 49 already enrolled. It’s not likely that 107 voucher students at Rock County Christian School would all come from the Janesville district, but many might. For every Janesville district student enrolling in a voucher school, we lose between $7,200 and $7,800 depending on if the student is elementary or high school.  On the high end the loss could be as much as $834,600. (107 students x $7,800)

There is no question a private school education is appropriate for some students. We trust that parents will make the right decisions.

But, those students should not be funded at the expense of other students enrolled in public schools. We ask lawmakers in Madison to not only recognize the benefits of a private school education, but also validate the value of a great public school system created in the state constitution that has been dedicated to providing every Wisconsin student with a great education.

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