Budget puzzles educators

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Officials for both public and private schools are puzzled by Gov. Scott Walker’s budget for elementary and secondary education.They agree that more state taxpayer support is needed for each of them to succeed.

Walker’s budget calls for expanding the voucher program that provides state help for the poor to send their children to participating voucher schools. The program has been limited largely to Racine and Milwaukee, but the governor’s budget removes participation ceilings.

The governor’s budget calls for a $150 per-pupil reduction in state aid for each child in public schools in the first year of the new biennium. It also would scale back the size of the vouchers and lower incomelimits for participation.

But the budget is cloudy for everyone because public school budgets would be tapped to provide the voucher money. Public school officials suggest the total loss, including the state cutback, could come to$127 million in the first year of the biennium.

In addition, the shift in money would come even if the child entering a voucher school had not previously been enrolled in a public school in the district.

Jim Bender, who, as president of School Choice inWisconsin, has led the fight for more voucher schools, said those schools “need proper funding or they won’t open more seats.” Lurking in the back of the financing question is whether more voucher schools would provide a better education.

That fight bubbled up as public school administrators assailed the governor’s approach. John Forester, director of government relations for School Administrators Alliance, also noted the Walker administration expects a 4.7 percent increase in general tax revenue in the first year of the biennium.

“Despite overwhelming evidence that private school vouchers donot improve student achievement and lack adequate accountability tothe public, Gov. Walker continues to pursue private school voucher expansion,” said Forester.

“The ultimate objective of voucher advocates is a statewide system of private-school vouchers for all Wisconsin children,” he added. The governor wasn’t buying criticism of his budget ideas.

‘’To me, the losers are the people who want to grow the state gov- ernment beyond the state’s ability to pay,” Walker said. But, to hear both the private and public school leaders, the financial picture forthe upcoming school year is at best unclear.

The local school budget issues have gone largely unnoticed in the media because of the controversy over Walker’s budget plans for the University of Wisconsin System. His budget calls for a $300 million, two-yearreduction in state support for the system. Walker also proposed eliminating the “Wisconsin Idea” of public service that dates back more than a century.

The governor retreated, first suggesting the Wisconsin Idea change was a “drafting error,’’ then said it was caused by confusion among his staf. The governor suggested the budget issue could be partially solved if the university faculty would teach an additional course.

University officials predicted that other top-notch schools would raid the faculty ranks, offering other jobs to UW faculty who are leaders in their disciplines. Walker’s move attracted national attention because he is preparing to run for national office.

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