Walker promotes expanding school choice

Governor says more options needed; foes cite funding issues

Jan. 31, 2013

MILWAUKEE — Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday pressed his case for expanding the use of voucher programs and other alternatives to traditional public schooling in Wisconsin, saying parents deserve a broad range of choices when it comes to educating their children.

Walker spoke at a Milwaukee stop on a national school choice tour organized by advocates of voucher programs, charter schools and other educational options. He has previously said he favors expanding the state’s voucher program but he only hinted Wednesday as to the breadth of changes he’d like to see.

When asked what percentage of the state might have access to vouchers under his upcoming budget plan, the Republican governor declined to be specific.

“We’re not looking at it solely by community. What we’re really doing is trying to provide as many families as possible … a viable alternative if they’ve got a failing school in their community,” he told reporters.

Currently the state offers voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine. The program gives eligible parents a state-funded voucher of $6,442 per child to defray their children’s tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

Conservatives say the program gives children in underperforming schools an alternative. But opponents say it takes needed money away from public schools and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education and undermine teachers unions, which overwhelmingly back Democrats.

Walker said his top priority is to give all students access to high-quality educations, whether through public or private schools, charter schools, online classes or home schooling.

“It isn’t about replacing one type of school with another,” Walker said. “It’s about saying we ultimately want every student in this community, and ultimately every student in the state, to have access to a great education.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who also spoke at the Milwaukee event, said his main concern was that school choice not lead to funds being siphoned away from public schools.

“That has to be the first commitment because those are the schools that don’t turn any children away,” said Barrett, a Democrat.

Walker told reporters, without elaborating, that it’s possible to expand school choices without diverting resources from other schools.

However, a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showed that the average Wisconsin student receives $4,899 of state general aid while choice students in Milwaukee and Racine can get up to $6,442 in state aid. The memo was prepared at the request of state Rep. Sondy Pope, a Democrat from Cross Plains in southern Wisconsin.

“Shrinking state support only further stresses local property taxpayers who are asked to pick up more of the cost to educate students,” Pope said in a statement.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie declined to respond directly to the memo, writing in an email that details of Walker’s budget will be released later this month.

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