Editorial: Statewide voucher expansion needs public hearings

7:38 PM, Jun. 3, 2013  |  Comments
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Tuesday the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee is expected to address Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to expand the school voucher program.

A revised deal reported late last week would expand the governor's proposed expansion to include the whole state.

It has been our stance over the last two years, since Joint Finance first toyed with expanding the program to Green Bay, that this is a policy change that deserves its own hearing and should not be lumped into the $68 billion 2013-15 state budget.

The proposed expansion of the program would change the face of public education, allowing public money to go to private schools that are not held to the same standards of accountability and transparency as public schools.

Republican legislators in the Assembly and Senate need to put the brakes on this and bring it before the full Legislature as a separate item.

The voucher program initially started with Milwaukee public schools to give low-income students the opportunity to choose another school, a choice that wealthier middle- and high-income families had. But there already is a school choice program available. In Brown County alone, a high school student could choose from 10 other public high schools under the existing open enrollment program.

Two years ago, a proposal to expand the program from Milwaukee to Racine and Green Bay was floated. The Legislature approved adding Racine to the program, but Green Bay was set aside.

When Walker released his budget in February, he proposed expanding the program again, this time to school districts of at least 4,000 students with at least two schools "failing" under the state report card. Nine more school districts, including Green Bay, qualified under this proposal.

Late last week there was a reported deal to expand the program to every school district in the state. It would cap enrollment at 1,000 students with no more than 1 percent of students from any one district, instead of lifting the caps after the second year, as Walker proposed. And the income eligibility would be reduced from 300 percent of the poverty rate to 185 percent.

The whole proposal is a major change in policy that shouldn't be in a budget. Select Republicans and the governor are hammering out the details of this in private.

The Joint Finance Committee will likely be handed a finished product that it can then forward to the full Legislature.

With Republican majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, it's likely to pass there. Such a process will not allow for a full debate.

The governor and his fellow Republicans should allow public hearings around the state and allow those taxpayers who will be paying for that voucher an opportunity to learn more about it and to voice their support or opposition.

To drastically change the proposal and still include it in a two-year spending plan that needs to be approved in less than a month is to push through pet legislation for either ideological or political reasons, not educational. We call on our local Republican legislators to oppose this plan and give it the scrutiny it deserves.

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