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May 28, 2015

Democrats say voucher expansion takes $800 million from public schools

Rep. Sondy Pope (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Rep. Sondy Pope (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Wisconsin Assembly Democrats say expanding the statewide private school voucher program will result in public schools losing up to $800 million over the next decade. The claim is based on a report from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which looked at a provision added to the state budget last week by Republicans that lifts the enrollment cap on the program and changes how it is funded.

During a news conference at the Capitol Thursday, Assembly Democrat Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) called it’s just the latest in an ongoing assault against public education. “There is no doubt about it – this budget will further harm our already financially struggling public schools,” Pope said.

Pope argued the cuts will devastate the future of public education in the state, and claimed Republicans are “selling out” public school students in order to provide a boost to a potential presidential bid by Governor Scott Walker. Republicans have maintained that efforts to expand voucher schools are because of growing demand for the program, and that parents should be given the flexibility to send their children to a school that best fits their needs.

Pope, the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Education Committee, said GOP lawmakers are ignoring what the people of Wisconsin actually want though by proposing “swift and harmful changes that represent one of the most drastic changes in education in a lifetime.”

Evers says teacher licensing change ‘breathtaking in its stupidity’ (AUDIO)

State Superintendent Tony Evers (Photo: DPI)

State Superintendent Tony Evers (Photo: DPI)

Wisconsin’s top education official is offering up harsh criticism for a state budget provision that would relax state standards for obtaining a teaching license.

The measure, added to the budget last week by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, would allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree to be licensed to teach math, social studies, science, or English in Wisconsin schools. Anyone with relevant experience, but not necessarily a degree, could teach other subjects. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers says it’s a terrible idea that is just “breathtaking in its stupidity.”

AUDIO: Sup. Tony Evers (:26)

The language was added to the budget as part of a large omnibus motion taken up by the Joint Finance Committee late at night.

The measure did not indicate who requested its inclusion, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said it came at the request of Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma), who argued it’s intended to make it easier for rural school districts to fill vacant positions. Evers says there are other ways to address that issue though, and the budget proposal would cause far more harm to the quality of education in Wisconsin if it’s allowed to stay.

Czaja’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Evers argues the change would give Wisconsin the most relaxed licensing standards for teachers in the nation and would be a recipe for disaster. “It essentially says whoever you hire will be licensed, and for me that’s a huge step in the wrong direction.”

High school sports officials concerned about Wisconsin budget provision

A push to let more non-traditional students participate in public school activities is raising some questions for Wisconsin high school athletics officials.

Language added to the state budget last week by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would require public schools to allow many private, virtual, charter and homeschooled students who live in their district to participate in their sports teams and other extracurricular activities. Some districts already allow some non-student participation through options such as co-ops, but the state budget provision allows for much broader access to those programs. The requirement would also not apply if a student already attends a school that offers a similar program.

Current WIAA rules requires students involved in a school sports team to be a full time student that attends the school they compete for, and receive 100 percent of their programming from that school. If it remains in the budget, Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association (WIAA) Deputy Director Wade Labecki says it could impact districts across the state, while also likely requiring the WIAA to change its rules for participation.

However, Labecki says there are greater concerns about the impact the change would have on school teams. For instance, he says kids attending a school could lose an opportunity to compete on a team to someone who does not even attend classes with them.

It could also cause complications for some many rural districts, where the chance to compete in sports is the main attraction for staying at a high school, rather than exploring a virtual school curriculum. Labecki says that could have a real financial impact on districts, which could lose state aid if students opt to enroll through a virtual classroom and return just for sports. If that happens, Labecki says “they’ve got dollars walking out of the door.”

Republican lawmakers have not yet indicated why the provision was added to the budget, while previous versions of the plan have faced stiff opposition from education groups. The proposal will still require an endorsement from the full legislature and Governor Scott Walker.

Disability advocate criticizes JFC vote on special needs vouchers

A “sneak attack” on the issue of special needs vouchers. That’s how Stop Special Needs Vouchers spokeswoman Terri Hart-Ellis refers to late-night action by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee, who inserted a program into the state budget.

Hart-Ellis contends parents of special needs kids may not be well served by vouchers. “They think they’re going to maybe get these services and this attention as far as special education is concerned. They get to the school and they find out that’s not the case,” said Hart-Ellis, whose 11 year-old daughter cannot speak and uses sign language and an iPad in her public school classroom.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unveiled the program on Tuesday, and voted to pass it at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. State funding – in this case $12,000 per student – would go towards a voucher which parents could use  to send their special needs student to a private school.

Similar measures have been previously rejected by the legislature, and the provision voted on Wednesday was not part of Governor Scott Walker’s proposed state spending plan.

“The process itself, sort of under cover of night with no public input, is really pretty outrageous,” said Hart-Ellis. “The opportunities that we did have in the past, we made ourselves so clear that legislation did not pass. So yeah, it’s kind of a sneak attack.”

Wisconsin school chief blasts Republican education budget

State Superintendent Tony Evers (Photo: DPI)

State Superintendent Tony Evers (Photo: DPI)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers is raising concerns about the education budget adopted by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

In a statement, Evers says he is troubled Republicans spent their time and effort designing a plan that “erodes the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system.”

The sweeping plan approved early Wednesday morning includes a wide range of changes, which include restoring about $200 million in funding to public schools and lifting a cap on the statewide private school voucher program. Evers argues that expansion will eventually create two systems of public schools – “those in local communities that can afford to provide a quality education through referendum and those that cannot.”

Republicans have said their plan is about providing a wide range of choices for Wisconsin students, so parents can find education options that work best for them.