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Policy & Politics: A Column on State Budget Issues – Part two: Independent Charter Schools, Vouchers To Go Statewide?

By Joe Plouff

Early last month, Governor Scott Walker presented the state legislature with what he believes should be the state budget for the next two years.  Citizens, special interest groups, and legislators are still reviewing his budget priorities set forth in over 1,800 pages.  The legislature has a joint committee tasked with reviewing and changing that document to reflect their own views.  Traditionally that committee takes the document and travels the state holding public hearings on it before beginning to make those changes.

Some of the headlines from the Governor’s budget include a plan to borrow $1.3 billion for transportation needs, cutting the University System’s budget by an additional 13% after it has already taken cuts of 22% since 2008, reducing by 25% the number of scientists in the Dept. of Natural Resources, bonding (more state borrowing) $220 million for a new Milwaukee Bucks sports arena in Milwaukee, changing the non-partisan governmental watch dog board and eliminating the caps on private school vouchers.  He also proposed the expansion of the Independent Charter School program. The impact on all public schools in the state is -$68,637,500.00.

It is important to note that there are currently over two hundred charter schools in the state.  Most of the charter schools have been authorized at the local level by locally elected school board members using money from their local budget to meet a particular local need.  This column is not addressing those schools but rather a select few independent charter schools.

As mentioned in part one, by law there are 23 such Independent Charter Schools in Wisconsin.  These charter schools are very different from those set up by school districts.  They have no local property tax base and are funded by deducting general state school aids that would have gone to the 423 public school districts.  Current law allows only the Milwaukee Common Council, UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and UW-Parkside to authorize these Independent Charter schools.

Under the Governor’s proposal, a new state board would be created: the Charter School Oversight Board, made up of political appointees.  This board would not actually set up or approve new Independent Charter Schools.  Rather, it would authorize other entities to do so anywhere in the state.  Concern has been raised that this new tier of authorizers would not have to follow open meeting law or comply with other open government accountability measures or follow general conflict of interest standards.

The table, “2014 –2015 State General School Aid Deduction,” includes current data on general aid money lost in each district on a per pupil basis.  What would this table look like in the future, taking into account this new budget proposal?  As of yet, it cannot be determined how many new Independent Charter Schools would be authorized by the new Charter School Oversight Board. But interest groups representing for-profit schools have already requested names and addresses of all students in various large school districts including Wausau, Green Bay, Manitowoc and a couple of dozen others.  To this writer’s knowledge there has been no interest expressed in smaller rural schools.

What is known is that, under Gov. Walker’s budget proposal, the funding source for the Independent Charter Schools remains the state’s general school aid at which the ICS’s get first dibs, in the amount of $8,074.00 for each student attending an Independent Charter School.  What’s left is allocated to the public school general school aid formulas and distributed to our 423 local school districts.

Taxpayers should take special note that local school districts would continue to be allowed to replace the reduced per pupil general state aid through increased local property tax.

But wait, there is more.  Also included in the Governor’s budget proposal are two more items that would impact local public schools.  Governor Walker proposes that there be an across the board reduction of $150.00 per student in the general school aid sent to each district in the first year of the biennium. This is offset with a promise to return to that level of funding with a slight increase the following year.  Within the chart, “2014 –2015 State General School Aid Deduction,” you will find the student enrollment for your school district.  By multiplying that enrollment figure times $150.00 you will get a general idea of the lost revenue to the district.

The second issue Governor Walker proposed is to open up the school voucher program currently authorized only in Milwaukee. It would become a statewide program with no restrictions on how many students may use a voucher.  A voucher is similar to a coupon that each child would be able to redeem at a private school.  The value of that coupon, or voucher, equals the state aid that child’s local public school district would receive from the state.  That local public school district would lose the state aid when it is deducted from the state aid sent to the local district.

The state budget process has not yet been completed.  The budget is not a done deal.  The legislature may be inclined to make changes to the Governor’s proposals. As with any proposal and state issue, you are free to contact your elected representatives.  Taking the time to let your state senators and representatives know how you feel on a topic is your right and responsibility.  Here is the contact information for state legislators representing some local area school districts.

State Senator- Sheila Harsdorf (R – River Falls) Majority Caucus Chair, District 10
Telephone: (608) 266-7745; email: Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wisconsin.gov

State Assembly Rep-  Adam Jarchow (R – Balsam Lake) District 28
Telephone: (608) 267-2365 (888) 529-0028 Email: Rep.Jarchow@legis.wisconsin.gov

State Assembly Rep- John Murtha (R – Baldwin) Majority Caucus Chair, District 29
Telephone: (608) 266-7683 (888) 529-0029; Email: Rep.Murtha@legis.wisconsin.gov

State Assembly Rep- Dean Knudson (R – Hudson) District 30
Telephone: (608) 266-1526 (888) 529-0030 Email: Rep.Knudson@legis.wisconsin.gov

State Senator- Janet Bewley (D – Ashland), District 25
Telephone: (608) 266-3510; Email: Sen.Bewley@legis.wi.gov

State Assembly Rep- Romaine Quinn (R – Rice Lake), District 75
Telephone:  (608) 266-2519  (888) 534-0075; Email: Rep.Quinn@legis.wisconsin.gov

If you are interested in learning more about school funding and the proposed budget a call to your local school district administer would be a good start.

Joe Plouff currently lives his retirement years in the Prairie Farm area restoring an old farmstead property with his wife. In addition, he writes a monthly news column Policy & Politics for the Hay River Review.  He has served on the Menomonie city council, in the Wisconsin state assembly and on the Dunn County Board of Supervisors.