MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who crafted a deal allowing the statewide expansion of private school vouchers stood by their plan Thursday, despite promises from a moderate GOP senator who said he and others would attempt to limit the program’s growth.
The compromise reached between Walker and Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly has been widely attacked, both by public school advocates who don’t want vouchers statewide and proponents of the program who dislike an enrollment cap.
The deal was struck late last week and added to the state budget early on Wednesday. The Senate and Assembly must pass identical versions of the budget before it heads to Walker.
Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, said Thursday that he and others were concerned with the plan and would push for not having the program go statewide. Schultz said the plan puts the state on a “dangerous path” toward creating a parallel school system that will suck money away from public schools.
“We are only one budget away from opening the flood gates,” Schultz said, referring to the likelihood that enrollment caps would be loosened. “It’s grown every single budget. By going statewide you sort of legitimize the concept.”
Under the deal, enrollment in the voucher program would be limited to 500 students next year and 1,000 after that. The enrollment caps would not apply to Milwaukee and Racine, the only two cities that currently have vouchers.
Vouchers allow students to attend private and religious schools with a taxpayer subsidy. The deal included in the budget would increase the amount of vouchers and tie future increases to what public schools receive.
The deal included in the budget differs from Walker’s original proposal in several major ways. Most importantly, Walker’s would have expanded vouchers only to nine districts while the latest proposal is statewide. Walker’s had no enrollment limit after the second year.
The budget also includes a new tax deduction for parents who send their children to private school but make too much money to obtain a voucher. The income cutoff for families to obtain a voucher outside of Milwaukee and Racine would be 185 percent of poverty, or about $43,000 for a family of four. The plan also eliminated vouchers for special needs students.
The deal drew criticism from powerful GOP donor Betsy DeVos, chairwoman of the American Federation for Children. She and her husband, Dick, have given Walker’s campaign more than $250,000.
“It is disappointing that more children will not be able to attend the school of their parents’ choice in the new statewide program,” Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Wisconsin families and children deserve quality educational options, especially those families with special needs children who saw their opportunities vanish when the committee voted to eliminate Gov. Walker’s proposed special needs scholarship program.”
But Walker and legislative leaders who put together the deal weren’t budging.
“Our goal is to have no changes made to the budget,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
Walker went on talk radio in Milwaukee to praise the plan, saying it achieved his goals of making vouchers available to more students statewide. And Republican Senate President Mike Ellis, a voucher opponent who worked on the compromise that also included more money for public schools, said the deal would stand.
“We’ve worked out a compromise on the voucher subject,” Ellis said. “I am satisfied with the plan. I do not anticipate a breach in the Republican ranks.”
Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman, one of 12 Republicans on the budget committee who approved the voucher plan, wasn’t having a change of heart Thursday.
“I’d be shocked if there were changes,” Grothman said.
Ellis said he was happy with the enrollment cap that would be in place at least two years. Opponents have argued that if the program grows statewide, the pressure to undo the caps will be intense and Republicans will push to soften them.
“We don’t know that,” Ellis said. “For two years we have a pretty good cap on it. … I’m satisfied where we are for the next two years.”