By Ryan Ekvall and M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
WAUKESHA – Speaking to hundreds of school choice supporters in this Republican Party stronghold city Thursday, Gov. Scott Walker and two state Senate Republicans confidently declared Wisconsin’s school voucher program will expand.
“We have said that we will not support a budget that does not include an expansion,” Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, told some 200 attendees, including children, at Thursday’s school choice rally at La Casa de Esperanza, a Waukesha community center. “We are very clear about that. By the time this is done and the negotiations in the budget process (are completed), there will be an expansion.”
Vukmir said the process was “fluid” and that some changes from the governor’s 2013-15 budget proposal could come as a result of the negotiations on the budget.
Walker’s budget calls for expanding the voucher program to school districts with two or more “D” or “F” schools on the state’s new school report card system. Nine districts would qualify for expansion if the governor’s proposal is signed into law.
“A lot of people talk about things they wish were in or out of a budget. I think in the end you’re going to see school choice in some form or another go forward with an expansion beyond just Milwaukee or Racine,” Walker told reporters after speaking at a school choice rally in La Casa de Esperanza in Waukesha.
Democratic leadership has done a lot of talking about items they want to see out of the budget bill, most highly critical of the voucher expansion plan.
Waukesha School District Superintendent Todd Gray told Wisconsin Reporter he has a lot of concerns about the expanded voucher plan.
“It seems like what I’ve seen here is they are ready to give a pretty big handout to schools that don’t have any accountability measures,” he said. “I’m not going to say no to vouchers, but I am going to say we have to put them on same playing field.”
With an enrollment of about 14,000 students, the school district is among the largest public school systems in the state and would be included in the voucher expansion.
Gray said he believes it would be “just a matter of time” before vouchers would be expanded to every school in the state.
Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, agreed there was “room for compromise” to expand school choice in the budget, although he said it was too early to tell if increased K-12 per pupil spending for public school students would be part of that compromise.
In his speech at La Casa de Esperanza, Walker regained some of the “rock star” status that he built on his recall campaign where he became a national sensation among conservatives. This time his adorning fans were not fiscal hawks, but grade-schoolers who swamped Walker after his speech like he were Justin Bieber.
The young students latched on to Walker for pictures and his signature, and the governor obliged, visiting with the youngsters for some 20 minutes as they at one point broke into chants of “Walker! Walker!”
It was Waukesha, after all.
Speaking to the audience, Walker said choice expansion was not political, but an “economic and moral imperative.”
“We need you to help us spread that message to other lawmakers at our state capitol,” Walker told the audience. “Because they need to understand this is not a political statement. This is not a political campaign. This is not a political effort. This is about children. This is about students in our state having that option.”
The governor also touched on statewide proficiency data released by the state Department of Public Instruction earlier this week.
DPI on Tuesday released test scores comparing Milwaukee Parental Choice Program students to Milwaukee Public Schools students, failing to account for disparate income levels between the students.
“The vast majority of families in that program are low income,” Walker said. “If you compare the same income categories of students who come from families in Milwaukee Public Schools with Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, you’ll find that in almost every category the kids in the choice schools outperform those in the public schools.”
He added he wanted all schools to perform better.
DPI’s release showed that 19.4 percent of MPS students were proficient or advanced in mathematics compared to 13.2 percent MPCP students participating in the Wisconsin Student Assessment System.
It also showed 14.2 percent of MPS students were proficient or advanced in reading, compared to 11.1 percent of MPCP students.
Data released by the voucher advocacy organization School Choice Wisconsin, however, showed that MPCP students outperformed MPS students everywhere except math, including reading, language arts, science and social studies when comparing only students in low income families.
Free and reduced lunch is available for students whose parents earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line, about $41,000 for a family of four. Until last school year, the income eligibility for the school choice program was 175 percent of the federal poverty line.
Walker increased eligibility for the choice program in the last biennial budget to families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $78,000 for a family of four.
Overall, students in Milwaukee underperform the statewide average for “economically disadvantaged” students – 30.5 percent of those students were proficient or advanced in math and 20.9 percent were proficient or advanced in reading, according to DPI.
“They’re trying to promote an agenda rather than report the data,” charged Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.
DPI did not respond to Wisconsin Reporter requests for comment.
“By the end of this school year, Wisconsin will have spent nearly $1.5 billion on the Milwaukee choice program since it began in the 1990-91 school year.” DPI’s news release concluded.
More than 24,000 students are now enrolled in the Milwaukee choice program, with an estimated annual cost of $154.6 million.
Milwaukee Public School’s proposed budget for next year is $1.17 billion to educate close to 80,000 students.
Contact Ekvall at [email protected]