Taxpayers’ bill for private voucher schools soars to $350 million

Wisconsin taxpayers will be spending $349.6 million to support private schools this year through the state’s voucher program, up from $302 million last year, according to figures released by the Department of Public Instruction.

According to DPI, the taxpayer-funded voucher programs will support a total of 43,450 private school students this year, up from 40,039 students last year.

There are four voucher programs: Milwaukee, Racine, Statewide, and Special Needs. The biggest growth this year was in the Statewide Program, which grew by 37 percent, and the Special Needs program, which grew by 55 percent. Below are figures from DPI:

Read more in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Cost of Wisconsin voucher programs nears $350 million as enrollment surges

CLOSE Buy Photo The HOPE Christian Schools network is active in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. (Photo: Mark Hoffman /Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) The number of Wisconsin students attending private, mostly religious, schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers continues to grow, driven by double-digit increases in the state’s two newest programs, according to data released by the Department of Public Instruction on Tuesday.

Students need more resources and program support, WEAC President Martin says

The state Department of Public Instruction is reporting that standardized test results for the 2018-19 school year show a slight decline from the previous year.

“Wisconsin Public School educators are working hard every day to educate the whole child – academically, socially and emotionally,” said Ron Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. “The annual standardized test scores measure academic achievement at one point in time, and at the start of a new school year educators welcome everyone in our communities to discuss how, together, we can address increasing barriers to learning including strapped school budgets, student poverty, trauma and mental health concerns.”

In addition to successfully advocating for more school funding in the 2019-21 state budget, WEAC has increased the number of programs it offers to help teachers and support professionals understand and teach students from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Working toward solutions to the teacher shortage is also key, and WEAC is advancing a series of recommendations from a statewide salary system to improving school climates, all outlined in its 2019-20 white paper, Moving Education Forward.

According to the DPI, four in 10 Wisconsin students were proficient or advanced in the 2018-19 school year. For English, reading and writing, 39.3 percent of students met proficiency standards on the Wisconsin Forward Exam, down from 40.6 percent in 2017-18 and 42.7 percent in 2016-17. In math, 40.1 percent met the proficiency standard, down a point from the previous year. Wisconsin has set the bar high to achieve proficiency, with one of the highest cut scores in the nation which are aligned to National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. 

ACT scores dropped for 11th graders, who had an average of 19.5. That was down from 19.7 in 2018 after the average had been 20 in each of the two prior years. Previously, only students who were preparing for college and those taking college-preparatory courses took the ACT, but in recent years all high school juniors have been given the test, whether or not they are enrolled in college prep courses.

The state’s achievement gap between white and minority students narrowed slightly, but due largely to a decrease in performance by white students. For example, the percentage of white fifth graders who rated proficient or advanced in English dropped 4.6 percentage points, while scores were down 1.6 points for African American fifth graders. Martin noted that educators are organizing in school districts across the state to push back on increasing class sizes that prevent them from giving students the one-on-one attention they deserve. 

The decrease in overall scores is slight, and Martin said the years of defunding public schools under the previous governor have a definite impact.

“Years of defunding public schools take a toll on the resources available for our students,” Martin said. “While a first step toward restoring some of the lost funding has been taken with the 2019-21 state budget, the damage won’t be repaired overnight.”

Martin noted that even with overwhelming public support for more education funding in the just-passed budget, Republicans in the legislative majority made deep cuts to Governor Tony Evers’ initial education budget plan. “The lack of support demonstrated by the legislative majority has a direct impact on general and special education school aids, preventing our most vulnerable students from getting the services and resources they need.”

Private voucher schools, which are increasingly enrolling students from affluent communities under the statewide voucher program, did not test nearly 10 percent of their students, even though they are required to give the state tests and are funded by taxpayers. Public schools, which serve all students no matter where they live or their economic status, posted a 98 percent participation rate.

Voucher program enrollment up 8.7 percent, cost soars to $302 million

Wisconsin Public Education Network graphic

Enrollment in Wisconsin’s three taxpayer-funded private school voucher programs rose 8.7 percent this year, while the cost soared 12.3 percent to $302 million, according to a report released Tuesday by the Department of Public Instruction.

Across the three programs (Milwaukee, Racine and statewide), 39,381 students received a voucher to attend one of the 279 participating private schools. That is an increase of 3,164 students and 43 schools compared to last school year.

The cost of the three programs combined is estimated at $302 million for the 2018-19 school year, which is an increase of about $33 million (12.3 percent) from the prior year.

For the 2018-19 school year, voucher payments are $7,754 per full-time equivalent in grades kindergarten through eight and $8,400 per FTE for students enrolled in grades nine through 12. That compares to $5,001 per student on average for public school students in  Wisconsin.

Enrollments in the three programs are:

  • The Milwaukee program enrolls 28,917 students in 129 participating private schools this year.
  • The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program enrolls 7,140 students in 213 private schools.
  • The Racine program enrolls 3,324 students in 26 participating private schools.

Read more from the Department of Public Instruction (pdf file).

$269 million in taxpayer money has been given to private voucher schools so far this biennium

Democrats on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee released a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau Tuesday revealing that private voucher schools in Wisconsin have received $269.6 million in state funding so far in the 2017-19 biennium, while public schools have seen a $90.6 million reduction in state aid. The memo also showed that:

  • Approximately $475 million of taxpayer dollars were paid to voucher schools over the 2015-17 biennium, during which time public schools in those districts faced a $150 million aid reduction.
  • Private school voucher programs in Wisconsin have already received over $2.5 billion [$2,576,900,000 approx.] in total state funding, and that number is only growing.

The Democrats released the figures in a news release in which they stated:

“As our children go back to school, we want the best for them and their bright futures. But Republicans have funneled millions of tax dollars to unaccountable voucher schools while our K-12 public schools continue to go to referendum just to keep the lights on,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). “Instead of funneling tax dollars to private schools, the Legislature should fairly fund our public schools so that everyone in Wisconsin has the same opportunity to learn and succeed.”

“Taxpayers have the right to know how much of their hard earned dollars are going toward voucher schools, especially since voucher schools are not required to meet the same accountability standards as public schools and have shown no significant improvements over public school performance,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).

“Access to a quality education should not depend on your zip code. Unfortunately, eight years of misplaced Republican priorities have made it impossible to ensure our public schools can meet and exceed our standards for educational excellence. We must invest in our public education system so that all of our children have equal access to the best educational opportunities – it’s what they deserve,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee).

“As a mother of two children in public school and a member of the budget committee, I hear from people across our state who question why my Republican colleagues and Governor Walker are creating a second, private school system while not adequately and consistently funding the public school system where most of our Wisconsin children are educated,” said Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison). “Republicans’ big campaign donors want to privatize public education to make a buck, and they are willing to destroy our public school system to do so. People should be outraged by their disregard for the 870,000 children in public schools, whose future, and our state’s future, depends on a strong public school system.”

A copy of the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo can be found here.

Private school voucher backers top $7.5 million in donations to Wisconsin politicians

From One Wisconsin Now

With the latest round of state campaign finance reports in, backers of the private school voucher program have larded the campaign accounts of politicians willing to do their bidding with $7.5 million in campaign contributions since 2008. Leading the pack, and hauling in more than 1 of every 4 dollars donated, is Governor Scott Walker with a total take in excess of $2.165 million.

“The people writing these checks want to see more private school vouchers,” said One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross. “Scott Walker has more than delivered, draining resources away from public K-12 schools and sending them to the less accountable private voucher schools favored by the donors who’ve dumped over $2 million into his campaign coffers.”

Under Walker and the GOP controlled legislature there has been a dramatic, statewide expansion of the less accountable private school voucher program. Vouchers take resources directly away from public schools to help pay for it even though the majority of students who enrolled in the expanded program were already attending private schools.

On top of the contributions sent directly to candidates, the American Federation for Children (AFC), a pro-voucher special interest group closely associated with Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has spent over $5 million to help its favored politicians in Wisconsin.

In addition, as uncovered by One Wisconsin Now, the Milwaukee based Bradley Foundation, which was overseen by Walker’s campaign chair Michael Grebe, spent over $108 million in support of groups helping to advance the education privatization agenda Walker favors between 2005 and 2014.

Special needs voucher program costs taxpayers $5.6 million, reduces aid to public schools, report says

The Wisconsin program that allows children with special needs to attend private schools at taxpayer expense cost the state $5.6 million in “scholarships” in its first two years, and diverted $4.1 million in needed state aid away from 25 local public school districts, according to a new audit from the Legislative Audit Bureau. Milwaukee Public Schools alone lost more than $2.6 million in state aid because of the program.

In addition, an analysis of the report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the report “confirmed what many critics had feared: that it would serve primarily children already in private schools and leave children with the greatest needs to the public schools.”

The report points out that:

  • Only about one-fourth of the 306 students who participated at some point during these two school years had attended a public school in the school year before participating, and most of the remaining students had attended private schools.
  • Approximately three-fourths of participating students lived in the boundaries of Milwaukee Public Schools.
  • In the 2017-18 school year, participating students attended 26 participating private schools and were from 25 resident school districts.
  • The number of participating private schools increased from 24 in the 2016-17 school year to 26 in the 2017-18 school year.
  • In the 2018-19 school year, 84 private schools intend to participate.

Read more:

Special needs vouchers cost Wisconsin public schools $5.6 million in first two years

A Wisconsin program that allows special needs students to attend private schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers cost local public schools almost $5.6 million in state funding over the last two years, including hundreds of districts where no residents participated in the program, according to a new state audit and related documents.

Read the entire audit report:

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WEAC and AFT-Wisconsin presidents join Democrats in blasting Walker’s latest TV ad and DeVos’ visit to state

WEAC President Ron Martin joined the Democratic Party of Wisconsin Tuesday in a media call in response to visits from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to the state. In discussing education policies, several speakers blasted Walker’s latest TV ad.

“I’m an eighth grade social studies teacher who has a long career dedicated to students,” Martin said. “It’s unbelievable that Betsy DeVos, who has dedicated her life to dismantling public schools, would show up in Wisconsin for a photo op.

“In Wisconsin, we believe all children have a right to a top-notch public education. Betsy DeVos doesn’t share that vision with us.

“Secretary DeVos, President Trump, Scott Walker – they’re all politicians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Photo stunts and millions of dollars of slick ads won’t change that fact.”

Kim Kohlhaas, president of the American Federation of Teachers – Wisconsin, echoed those sentiments:

“Betsy DeVos is the worst education secretary of our lifetime,” Kohlhaas said. “Unfortunately, Scott Walker is also the worst education governor of our lifetime. This is more than a funding issue, this is a values issues.

“You cannot claim to be the ‘education governor’ when 40 other states are investing in public education at a stronger pace than Wisconsin,” Kohlhaas said. “You cannot claim to be ‘education governor’ when classroom sizes have gone up, programs have been cut and positions cannot be filled.”

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairwoman Martha Laning said: “It isn’t surprising that Secretary DeVos is here in Wisconsin today, because she and Scott Walker have the exact same approach to education funding. They both support policies that have diverted taxpayer dollars to private, unaccountable schools while starving our public schools.”

“Today Scott Walker introduced a 60 second ad focusing on the Three Lakes School District, which due to lack of state funding nearly closed last year,” Laning said. “Their community passed a $15 million school referendum to keep the school open. So it is tough to see Scott Walker taking credit for a program that his state funding decisions nearly destroyed.

“Wisconsin can’t afford any more of Walker’s disastrous policies, and that’s why voters are ready for a new governor who will have a positive vision to expand healthcare and educational opportunity. Democrats are ready to lead Wisconsin to a better future for all.”

From One Wisconsin Now:

Worst Governor on Public Education Hosts Worst Secretary of Dept. of Education

MADISON, Wis. – The worst governor for public education in state history, Scott Walker, is hosting the worst Secretary of the Department of Education in American history, Betsy DeVos, today as she visits a technical college and a public middle school in Wisconsin. “These two deserve each other,” commented One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross.

This is an 11.0101(10)(b)(1) communication with WEAC members.

Legislative Update – May 29 – What’s next for the School Funding Commission?

WEAC members for the past half-year spoke up at a series of legislative public hearings about the resources we need to adequately teach our students, and now leaders of the panel holding the forums are talking about what may come next. The final hearing is set Monday, June 4, in Madison.

The co-chairs of the commission say they may address critical issues such as declining enrollment and special education reimbursements. Particularly telling was that Republicans Senator Luther Olsen and Representative Joel Kitchens don’t anticipate they’ll touch school vouchers or open enrollment – both topics they said were in the scope of their work when the commission formed in December.

WEAC President Ron Martin said it was disappointing that the commission may back away from voucher transparency and fixing the damage vouchers cause to neighborhood public schools. Much of the testimony the panel received from public school advocates centered on how private school vouchers take vital funding from neighborhood public schools, without accountability to taxpayers. To make up for lost state aid tied to the voucher system, school districts throughout Wisconsin had to levy an additional $37 million in property taxes in 2017-18, and will have to levy an anticipated $47 million in 2018-19.

The commission also looks like it might not get to the root of adequate school funding so districts can hire and retain qualified educators for the long haul. Instead, one co-chair said we might see bills encouraging retired educators to substitute as a solution to the state’s teacher shortage.

The co-chairs, speaking to Capitol insiders at WisPolitics, said they were looking at changes to the school funding formula but weren’t in agreement what that could look like. Kitchens left the door open to “completely overhauling it,” saying it’s “pretty clear there will be some fundamental changes we will recommend, but the extent of that is up in the air,” while Olsen said he doesn’t see an overhaul on the horizon and instead emphasized the need to provide more funding to declining enrollment districts.

Other items that may be recommended include combined services like grade sharing, more K-8 districts, and consolidation. The governor in 2017 vetoed a provision promoting grade sharing between districts.

Olsen mentioned tweaking components of the equalization aid formula, which most education advocates say doesn’t go far enough. Neither lawmaker embraced going beyond the new plan to boost the revenue ceiling for low-spending districts, saying that was solved with the recent legislation.

While the co-chairs signaled the possibility of recommending an increase in the state’s special education reimbursements, WEAC President Martin noted that a similar proposal did not make it into the last few state budgets and instead only a high-cost special education reimbursement rate received a boost.

It’s uncertain whether recommendations will come forward in the next state budget, as stand-alone bills, or a mixture of both.

Listen to a recording of the interview with Senator Luther Olsen

Listen to a recording of the interview with Representative Joel Kitchens

Next Steps: After the final public hearing June 4, the co-chairs will sit down individually with each of the 16 commission members and representatives from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to see what legislation they’d like to come out of the body.

‘No-excuses’ charter schools could do more harm than good, analysis finds

“No-excuses” charter schools – which promote strict disciplinary policies, longer school days, and intensive academic tutoring at the expense of the arts and physical education – could do more harm than good, according to a new review by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

“While supporters of ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say these practices improve student achievement, they fail to acknowledge the potential negative effects these practices have on students, teachers, and families,” according to the report.

The Think Twice report disputes an earlier report by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute claiming that practices found in “no-excuses” charter schools could help close the achievement gap, especially in low-performing schools. Think Twice reviewers Joanne W. Golann, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, and Chris Torres, an assistant professor of K-12 educational administration at Michigan State University, conclude that the original report had several flaws and should not be used to inform education policy or as a tool to expand “no-excuses” charter schools and policies.

The Think Twice report noted that several studies have demonstrated the “no-excuses” practices can negatively impact a student’s socio-emotional development and later success. “Many ‘no-excuses’ charter schools have harsh, disparate discipline policies that can result in suspensions or expulsions for violations, no matter how small,” it says.

The Think Twice report says:

  • “No-excuses” schools aren’t a one-size-fits-all approach to turning around schools; and there is no solid evidence to back up claims that “no-excuses” disciplinary policies are the core reason for these schools’ success.
  • “No-excuses” schools have higher than average teacher turnover rates due to concerns about workload, long hours, and the “no-excuses” model itself.
  • Policymakers, education leaders, and other decision-makers should pause before expanding “no-excuses” schools and polices.
  • Policymakers, educators, and researchers need to work together to address and understand the impact of the “no-excuses” model before expanding it to other charters or even traditional public schools.
  • We need to embrace culturally relevant educational practices that support equitable and fair learning opportunities for all students and ensure students can learn in a safe environment.
  • Educators should focus on all aspects of student growth – including academic and emotional and personal growth – rather than only focusing on academic achievement to measure student success.

Find out more at the Great Lakes Center website.

Vouchers are far worse for student achievement than previously thought, analysis concludes

A new analysis by the Center for American Progress concludes that private school vouchers are more harmful to student achievement than previously thought and that students attending private voucher schools miss out on approximately one-third of a year of classroom learning.

“This analysis builds on a large body of voucher program evaluations in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., all of which show that students attending participating private schools perform significantly worse than their peers in public schools—especially in math,” according to the summary titled The Highly Negative Impacts of Vouchers. “A recent, rigorous evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program from the U.S. Department of Education reaffirms these findings, reporting that D.C. students attending voucher schools performed significantly worse than they would have in their original public school.”

The report concludes that voucher programs have a more negative impact on students than exposure to violent crime at school, feeling unsafe in school, high teacher turnover, and teacher absenteeism.

It cited the lack of instructional time in voucher schools as a main factor: “The researchers found that private schools offer less instructional time than public schools. On average, private schools offer 65.5 minutes less per week in reading instruction and 48.3 minutes less per week in math instruction. More quality instructional time is linked to higher student achievement. Therefore, with each additional year that students are enrolled in the voucher program, they lose even more instructional time.”

Read more about the study:

The Highly Negative Impacts of Vouchers – Center for American Progress

How bad are school vouchers for students? Far worse than most people imagine. Indeed, according to the analysis conducted by the authors of this report, the use of school vouchers-which provide families with public dollars to spend on private schools-is equivalent to missing out on more than one-third of a year of classroom learning.