Voucher Expansion Deal has Electoral Consequences

The deal is not finished, but word out of the Capitol is Governor Scott Walker and voucher expansion advocates have finalized a deal with moderate Republican Senators Luther Olsen and Mike Ellis.  The deal will bring a $150 increase in per-pupil funding for public schools, and will expand vouchers statewide, but will only include 1,000 students a year and no more than 1% from any given school district.  This would not impact the prior expansions in Milwaukee and Racine.

In his budget Governor Walker proposed a voucher expansion for the largest school districts in the state, affecting only those with more than 4,000 students and at least 2 failing schools (according to the new school report cards).  But opponents pointed out the report cards were in their first year and not ready for such large decisions, and argued it did not make sense to expand vouchers to schools that were successful if the goal was to give kids in failing schools access to a quality education.

If this deal becomes law it would mark a major shift in the voucher debate.  For the first twenty years vouchers were limited to Milwaukee kids from poor families.  School choice had support from conservative lawmakers and Milwaukee Democrats.  When Governor Walker was elected in 2010 everything changed.  With complete control of the legislature the Governor and school choice advocates greatly expanded the program; by lifting the enrollment caps in Milwaukee, raising the income limits so wealthier families could get taxpayer funded vouchers, and then by expanding the program to Racine.

Most of the rest of the state did not pay attention.  There were enough controversial elements in Governor Walker’s first year that voucher expansion was not a hot topic outside of Milwaukee and Racine.  Even the Governor’s budget proposal this spring only impacted large school districts in mostly Democratic areas.

But a statewide expansion makes this possible in every corner of the state, and suddenly every lawmaker’s vote on this issue matters to their voters.  Recent polling by the Marquette Law School has shown voters are mostly split on whether to expand vouchers, with the vast majority not supporting statewide expansion.  That same poll showed strong support for local public schools.  Rest assured Democrats and public school advocates will say statewide expansion of the voucher program is a direct threat to the public school system.  Even if the program is limited to just 1,000 kids outside of Milwaukee and Racine, the possibility of lifting or expanding that cap will certainly be on the table in future budget debates.  Rest assured school choice advocacy groups will be out in force, drumming up support and arguing choice should be up to the parents.

Beyond making this a statewide issue, the other major shift this expansion does is weaken a crucial argument school choice supporters have used for years.  The voucher program was conceived and expanded on the notion that kids from poor families should have a way to escape a failing school.  Even Governor Walker tried to connect voucher expansion with failing school report cards.  But this expansion goes everywhere and low income kids in excellent schools will still be able to use taxpayer money to attend private schools.

This will likely crystalize the debate over school choice.  People will be able to more clearly debate how taxpayer money should be used to educate kids.  On one end of the spectrum school choice advocates say their ultimate goal is “a voucher in every backpack” in which the taxpayer money follows them where ever they want to go.  On the other end of the spectrum are those that want to see vouchers eliminated entirely.  We are somewhere in the middle, and this deal will have a major impact on the elections that will determine the direction the state will head, and whether this round of voucher expansion is the end, or just the beginning.


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