By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Dale Schultz is no stranger to the role of dissenting voice.
While the Richland Center Republican has voted with his party the vast majority of his 30 years in the Legislature, he’s played the role of maverick on more than a few key occasions.
Schultz stood alone, the sole Senate Republican to vote against Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious Act 10, the reform law that gutted collective bargaining for most public employees. The measure passed, but not without plenty of conservative criticism for the southwest Wisconsin senator viewed as a moderate in an increasingly divided political state.
Last year, Schultz broke with his party in supporting a compromise mining bill that he proposed with fellow veteran Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar.
Now, as Walker pitches a plan to expand school choice, and private school vouchers in particular, Schultz again stands in opposition to the Republican plan.
But this time, Schultz doesn’t stand alone in his party.
Several Senate Republicans, including Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, are balking at Walker’s proposal, which would boost aid to choice schools and pave the way for expanding the voucher program to nine communities beyond Racine and Milwaukee, the birthplace of the national school voucher movement.
“This is not a good idea,” Ellis told WFRV TV in Green Bay this week. “Blowing this thing statewide when there is no need to do so and opening the door is going to be devastating on our public school system.”
Walker’s school choice plan seemingly has brought together Republicans like Ellis and many Democrats, opposed for some similar reasons.
“…(T)he governor is shortchanging public schools while again giving more to private voucher schools, still without any accountability,” Senate Minority Leader Peter Barca said in a statement. “At a time when our public schools continue to struggle because they lack necessary funding, how can he justify giving more to private voucher schools?”
Ellis has pushed for a locally driven voucher expansion concept, calling for district-wide referendums to settle the voucher question. “Anything short of that is not only undemocratic, but it’s backroom politics at its worst,” Ellis told the TV station. This week he counted at least eight Republicans who he says didn’t want the governor’s measure in the state budget.
Schultz is squarely in those dissident ranks, according to Todd Allbaugh, Schultz’s chief of staff. He said several Republican senators have a lot of “heartburn” over the way the voucher plan is being proposed in the budget.
The governor’s proposal affects school districts with at least two failing or nearly failing schools and enrollment of 4,000 students or more. Schultz’s mostly rural 17th Senate District doesn’t include schools that fit the enrollment requirements.
But all school districts in the state would be included in the Special Needs Scholarship provision, “through which a child with special needs may receive a state funded scholarship to attend the school of his or her choice,” according to the governor.
Allbaugh said Schultz is concerned about the potential disparity of the scholarship program.
“Private schools can pick and choose who they take; public schools cannot,” Allbaugh said, asserting that voucher schools will accept students with mild to medium disabilities while public schools by law must enroll any and all students.
“Public schools would be left with severely and profoundly disabled students,” he said, “dividing once again our communities” between families of students in need of special services over the resources to pay for them.
Schultz, too, would like to see any choice expansion plan narrower in scope, Allbaugh said.
“The deal was, this was for Milwaukee and areas of the state facing unique challenges,” the Senate aide said. “I think Dale would much rather see that as a stand-alone program to give adequate public input and to take it as a speed that is responsible, rather than bashing it into the budget where it’s one of a half million items.”
Milwaukee has seen its parental school choice program swell to scores of schools and enrollment of nearly 25,000 over the past 20 years, and advocates across the state want to see the school choice model replicated. Racine has followed suit, with 11 schools boasting enrollment of more than 500 students, according to Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that supports parental school choice rights.
Brown says expanding choice is a fundamental right, demanding that education spending should follow the child, not the other way around. School choice advocates speak with a sense of urgency, arguing that every day a child is stuck in an underperforming school is another day of lost opportunity for that student and her family.
“What we really want to do is open up choice, to allow schools to innovate and to allow parents to pick the winners, and not bureaucrats,” Brown told Wisconsin Reporter last month. “As schools innovate, their partners will begin to innovate and the result will be better education for our kids and more efficient costs for taxpayers.”
While there may be some difference of opinion among Republican senators, leadership isn’t evincing a troubled public face.
“Senator Fitzgerald looks forward to having an open discussion with the Republican caucus regarding the Governor’s proposed expansion of school choice,” Tom Evenson, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, wrote in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.
Republican Party strategist Mark Graul isn’t buying any talk of open insurrection between GOP senators and Walker. Graul believes the super-majority Republicans in the Assembly have enough votes to pass Walker’s proposal as is today. The rest, he said, will come over time through the power of compromise.
“Expansion of school choice is one of the issues that maybe the final product won’t be exactly what the governor has proposed, but by and large I think most Republicans will be very pleased with what the governor proposing,” said Graul, who led George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in Wisconsin in 2004.
State Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said there’s a lot of support among conservatives for broader expansion of school choice.
“What that looks like at end of day, I am not sure, but I’m sure we will be expanding choice in some fashion,” the lawmaker said.
Contact Kittle at [email protected]