February 9, 2016

Voucher expansion deal appears close

A deal appears very close on an expansion of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers in Wisconsin. Statements from Republican leaders on Thursday indicated a deal was still in the works, but Senator Luther Olson, a Republican who had problems with the original proposal to expand private school vouchers to nine districts beyond Milwaukee and Racine, said he got a handshake from Governor Scott Walker. “I’m happy,” Olson said at the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance. Senate President Mike Ellis, who also had concerns about the proposed expansion, told WHBY in Appleton that he wasn’t ready to comment.

According to details reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, no more than one percent of the students of any given school district could participate in the new program. Democratic state Representative Jon Richards of Milwaukee is doubtful. “Anybody who thinks this is going to stay at one percent of the school population is living in a fantasy land,” said Richards. He predicted that, if passed as part of the state budget, there will be a campaign to “bust those caps,” and that the voucher program will grow to become the largest in the nation. “This is going to be something that is going to be a very big deal for school districts all around Wisconsin for years to come.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers called the plan “a Trojan Horse” and predicted the one percent cap will prove temporary. “Within a few years, there will certainly be ‘a voucher in every backpack,’ costing taxpayers over $1 billion to subsidize families, including the wealthy, currently paying private and religious school tuition,” Evers said in a statement.

Also on Thursday, a group of 11 conservative Assembly Republicans forwarded a letter to their leadership, detailing items they insist must be included in any state budget package before they can vote for it. Those provisions include GOP Representative Dale Kooyenga’s tax reform package, and an overall reduction in state bonding of $500 million.

“We cannot both represent our constituents and our conservative principles by supporting the budget in its current form,” they wrote. If all 11 who signed the letter were to oppose the budget, that would leave Assembly Republicans one vote short of the needed majority for passage – and any support from Democrats would be extremely unlikely.

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