Voucher, charter school expansion proposal ignites storm of protest

Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to expand charter schools and add nine school districts to Wisconsin's school-voucher program is the hottest topic in the State Capitol, complete with the specter of property tax increases and loss of local control. The voucher program now is limited to Racine and Milwaukee.

Walker's plan also would create a new state board to decide on applications for charter schools. That would effectively remove local control, despite the heavy role played by the property tax in funding elementary and secondary education. School board leaders are furious at the ideas.

"Why should we want political appointees in Madison telling people in Green Bay, or any community, whether they should have an independent charter school and whether an outside entity should govern and manage their tax dollars?" asked Green Bay School Board President Brenda Warren.

"Why would we use limited taxpayer resources to create a second education system by fund- ing religious and private voucher schools, particularly given that they are not proven to produce better student outcomes than public schools?" asked Monona Grove Board President Susan Fox.

But Wisconsin's Catholic bishops say educational choice is vital. Parents "must have the community's support in selecting a form of education that best meets their child's needs-academic, psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical," they said in a statement backing the governor's budget proposal.

The bishops said Catholic hospitals, charities and universities already receive both federal and state tax dollars. They suggested that the expanded voucher proposal is comparable.

The idea of help for parochial schools is attractive to the Catholic leaders. But the top issues for the church leaders remain abortion and birth control. Vote correctly on those issues, and a legislator will surely have the church's support at election time.

Cost remains an issue. Former State Sen. Dan Theno, R-Ashland, said Walker's plan would "greatly increase the cost and size of a government program."

"Wisconsin taxpayers are not obligated to financially support private or religious schools," Theno said. "The proposed expansion will siphon money from public schools, which state government has a constitutional mandate to support."

Walker's people note the governor would provide a limited expansion in the next two years. Critics respond there would be no limits on the programs after that period. In November in a speech at the Ronald Reagan library in California, Walker reinforced his commitment to alternative schools, saying every child should have access to world-class education.

Armed with data from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau of the State Legislature, school board officials now are citing the potential long-term impact on property taxes in their districts if the governor's plan is adopted.

But taxes may not be the most contentious issue in Walker's proposal. It also would allow the creation of charter school programs for "special need" children. Several decades ago they were called "handicapped" children.

Newspaper accounts show parents of "special need" children are split on the governor's plan. Some parents fear an alternative for their children would splinter efforts and the funding that goes into those efforts. Others hope that new programs could provide better opportunities.

The feelings run deep, but that's not new. Decades ago similar parents jammed a State Capitol hearing on a plan to change the funding scheme for handicapped education through a rating of disabilities. The parents hung together, and the Legislature retreated. There would be no rating of disabilities of Wisconsin children.

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