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Wisconsin Governor Signed Largest School Voucher Expansion In 30 Years

Above Photo: Gov. Tony Evers in November 2022 in Plymouth, Wisconsin. Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Public school advocates say they feel betrayed by Wisconsin’s “Education Governor.”

The budget package that was on his desk is “a bad deal” that includes “a pittance to public schools.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed a budget package Tuesday that includes what could be the biggest voucher school expansion since the program started 30 years ago. You would be excused for having flashbacks to the work of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who championed school privatization and greatly expanded the state’s voucher program in 2014.

The deal that Evers, a Democrat, supported is a package of bills that were signed along with the state budget and which could increase private school voucher enrollment by 40% statewide. It could effectively be such a strong push toward privatization that it would put the state’s public schools in crisis, pulling students and the funding the goes with them out of already cash strapped public school districts. Evers, meanwhile, previously called the overall package a ​“Win for Wisconsin.” Since the deal was first announced, Republicans proposed more cuts, slashing millions going to childcare programs and jeopardizing public transit. They’re also eyeing cuts to the University of Wisconsin. This is all happening while the state is sitting on a nearly $7 billion budget surplus.

“A bad deal is a bad deal,” says Ingrid Walker-Henry, vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), the state’s largest teachers union. ​“You can’t shine it up and make it better.”

The MTEA, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (known as WEAC, the statewide education union), Citizen Action of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) had urged Evers to veto the voucher expansion, Senate Bill 330, and any budget deal that jeopardizes funding for public transportation, childcare programs and the University of Wisconsin. ​“When you come into a deal and end up going so far backwards that multiple constituencies are telling you this is going to hurt,” Walker-Henry adds, ​“it’s not belt-tightening. No, you are decimating us, we may not survive.”

Evers, the former state superintendent of public instruction, campaigned as the Education Governor” and pledged to champion Wisconsin’s public schools that haven’t seen a significant per pupil increase in years. Evers’ initial budget proposal included $2.6 billion for K – 12 schools but the new agreement proposes $1 billion, more than 60% less.

“We celebrated when we got @GovEvers because we thought we had a public education champion … He still has time to prove us right,” Nicolo Onorato, a teacher in Milwaukee and MTEA member, tweeted before Evers signed the budget deal. ​“Gov. Evers stand with public school students. Veto this unfair ​“deal” and fight for [a] budget that supports the priorities we voted for you to protect,” he pleaded.

Heather DuBois Bourenane, WPEN’s executive director, echoed Onorato and says that ​“Public education was a main focus of the last election” and that ​“voters were clear in rejecting a candidate, Republican Tim Michels, who campaigned on vouchers.”

She added that the budget deal ​“doesn’t look like a compromise. It’s like a hostage situation.”

Public school advocates supported the $2.6 billion Evers initially budgeted for education funding, asking for a $1,500 per pupil increase to make up for inflation and the absence of increases in previous budgets.

“It’s a pittance to public schools,” says State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), who is also the senate minority caucus chair. While Evers announced public schools will receive a $325 per pupil increase, voucher schools are set to receive a $1,000 to $3000 increase per student (see Table 5 on page 5: bit​.ly/​W​I​_​V​o​u​chers) and could allow for 20,000 additional publicly funded seats at private schools. ​“Anyone who wants to be called the ​‘Education Governor’ would veto this and would be proud to veto this,” Larson said before Evers signed the deal.

MTEA leaders say the $325 promised increase isn’t even accurate and issued a press release noting that ​“the rough estimates that MPS administration has shared with MTEA are less than $1 million new dollars in the 2023 – 24 school year (year 1) which works out to about $12 per student. And in the 2024 – 25 (year 2) the funding is only about $2.4 million which amounts to $38 per student.”

Larson warns that the price tag on the voucher expansion will only grow each year with built-in state funding increases. School funding in Wisconsin is tied to student enrollment so each student that takes a voucher to a private school effectively takes money from public schools. When enrollment drops too much, schools may close. For a small district, students leaving public schools to take even a fraction of the 20,000 voucher seats could be catastrophic. ​“This is the largest expansion of unaccountable voucher schools,” Larson says. ​“This is going to be the death of public schooling for a lot of rural school districts … if nothing is done to avert this crisis.”

The history of voucher programs that give public funding for students to attend private schools begins with racist, white opposition to integration in Southern states after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ended legal segregation in public schools. Voucher programs emerged as a way to offer white students alternatives to integrated schools. More complicated racial dynamics played into Wisconsin becoming the first state to implement a statewide voucher program about 30 years ago, as some Black Democrats in Milwaukee have pushed for the effort and even partnered with Republicans under the guise of giving Black students more options for schooling. Combined with charter schools (both sit outside the governance of local school districts and school boards), the efforts are referred to as ​“school choice” by supporters. Today, more than 40% of Milwaukee students are in voucher or privately run charter schools.

“School vouchers became a popular tool for perpetuating segregation,” tweetedRep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay). ​“Southern legislators enacted bills for tuition vouchers or grant programs to close down public school systems altogether, rather than desegregate.”

In a later tweet, Shelton noted that ​“this is one of the greatest giveaways of public money to private schools in our history.”

Larson says this kind of cash infusion to voucher schools is particularly troubling because they are unaccountable to the public, unlike public schools which have to make finances publicly available, including employee salaries. ​“They don’t have to report any of it,” Larson adds.

According to investigative reporting outlet Wisconsin Watch, there are currently 52,000 students using vouchers statewide, 95% of the schools they attend are religious, and the state spent $443 million on ​“choice” programs in the 2022 – 23 school year. Furthermore, students at voucher schools are not protected against discrimination, whether for disabilities or being LGTBQ+ — trans students have been especially targeted.

“This is no different than what we would have gotten from Scott Walker,” says Milwaukee high school teacher David Eppelsheimer, who worked hard to re-elect Evers in 2022, pounding the pavement and serving as a canvas captain for the MTEA. ​“I went out just about every weekend from August to November for the election,” Eppelsheimer says. ​“Now [Evers is] suddenly pumping tons of money into these [voucher] schools that are kicking out students because of their disability, their gender identity.”

Wisconsin was the focus of national political headlines in 2012 when Walker brought in sweeping restrictions to public sector unions, all but banning collective bargaining in an effort known as Act 10. Two years later he expanded voucher schools. Union membership in the state today is a fraction of what it was, and Republicans have gerrymandered a long-term artificial Republican majority in the state legislature while starving public education and other public programs.

Meanwhile, seven Milwaukee alderpersons, in a joint statement, called the shared revenue bill that is part of the overall budget deal ​“overreaching, micromanaging and frankly racist.”

“The policies the State has embedded into the shared revenue agreement encroach upon local control, and destroy much of the work we have done while handicapping Milwaukee’s ability to address the historic inequities that still exist,” the statement reads.

It continues: ​“Among the detrimental and troubling policies in the bill are: The city would be prohibited from using the revenue to fund positions to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as being prohibited from using race as a factor when issuing contracts; Fire and police policymaking power would move from the independent FPC to the respective chiefs; The city may not use the new money on what one Assembly leader believes is ​‘frivolous things such as street cars and woke diversity and equity initiatives,’ and any new spending would require a two-thirds vote of the Council. These are just a few of the policy changes the State is on the verge of passing as the state aid deal gets approved.”

Before Evers signed the budget package, Larson said that ​“the governor has a veto pen, and the public is on his side.” But Evers signed the package Tuesday morning.

“I and other advocates knocked on doors [for Evers] hoping that public schools would be protected,” Larson said. ​“It’s like finding out toothpaste actually causes cavities.”

This article was updated at 1:10 p.m. CST on Tuesday, June 20.

Samantha Winslow is a labor organizer and writer. She has worked with healthcare, teacher and transit unions and was previously a staff writer on the education beat for Labor Notes.

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