Will the ‘education governor’ go along with GOP funds transfer from public to private schools?

June 14, 2023 5:00 am
Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2021-23 biennial budget at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, after making 50 partial vetoes (screenshot | Gov. Evers Facebook video)

Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2021-23 biennial budget at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, after making 50 partial vetoes (screenshot | Gov. Evers Facebook video)

As Republicans advanced their bills to dramatically increase taxpayer funding for private schools during a flurry of overlapping legislative hearings Tuesday, school choice advocates were giddy. Busloads of private school parents, staff and students wearing green T-shirts with the words “Equal funding for ALL KIDS” emblazoned on the back jammed hearing rooms in the Capitol. 

“I actually saw Amy Loudenbeck doing a jig,” a dismayed public school advocate told me, referring to the former Republican state representative who now works for the powerful lobby group School Choice Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has been in the process of transferring taxpayer money out of the state’s public school system into private schools for decades, starting with the first-in-the-nation private school voucher experiment launched in Milwaukee in 1990 under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Despite that experiment’s unimpressive results, school choice programs got a steroid injection under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who spread them to Racine and launched a statewide program, lifting income and enrollment caps and giving a big taxpayer-financed subsidy to cover private school tuition, mostly for families who had never even sent their kids to public school.

But who would have thought the biggest transfer of money into private schools in state history would happen under Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the former state schools superintendent and a champion of public education? 

Under the terms of the deal Evers negotiated last week with Republican legislative leaders — negotiations from which Democratic legislators were conspicuously absent — the Republicans agreed to stop holding Milwaukee hostage and allow local officials there to raise desperately needed revenue through a sales tax. In exchange, Republicans were delighted to announce, they won a “transformational” increase in public funding for private schools. 

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos introduced his bill, AB-305, to the Assembly education committee, saying it will make an additional 20,000 seats available in private schools through the school choice program — an increase of nearly 40% — thanks to the deal Republican legislative leaders negotiated with the governor.

Public schools won’t keep pace with inflation

Meanwhile, on the public school side, the new budget deal looks an awful lot like the old one. Despite a lot of fanfare over $1 billion dollars in new money for K-12 schools, the $325 per-pupil revenue increase in each year of the new budget touted by Evers won’t even allow districts to keep pace with inflation. 

And that’s after a generation of disinvestment in public education. Wisconsin public high schools’ Class of 2023 graduates have made do with fewer resources every year of their lives, starting in kindergarten. 

The Wisconsin Public Education Network demanded an inflationary increase of at least $1,510 per student in new funds for public schools and a 60% reimbursement for districts’ special education costs. Neither the per-pupil increase nor the boost in the state’s share of special ed funding  — from about 30% to 33.3% — comes close to that.  

There are a couple of bright spots in the deal, which passed the Joint Finance Committee on a straight 11-4 party-line vote Tuesday night. They include $30 million for school-based mental health services and increases revenue limits for school districts that have been frozen at $10,000 per pupil. Now some of them can spend up to $11,000 per pupil. But 28 school districts around Wisconsin can’t even access that modest increase next year, because state law blocks them from spending any new money for three years if they have tried and failed to pass a school funding referendum.

‘Our kids don’t have two more years’

“All I could think when this bill came out was, two more years. Two more years! Our kids don’t have two more years,” Christine Hambuch-Boyle, an organizer for the Wisconsin Public Education Network in northwestern Wisconsin, testified at the Assembly education committee hearing Tuesday.

School choice advocates, meanwhile, hammered on their theme that the “funding gap” between public and private schools is an issue of “justice” — as if private schools are entitled, as a matter of equity, to a full public subsidy.

Since the 1840s, the Wisconsin Constitution has required the Legislature to provide public schools that are “nearly uniform as practicable” and free of charge for all children. Clearly, big resource gaps among poor and wealthy public school districts violate that directive. But the idea that private school families are entitled to have their tuition fully covered by the taxpayers, at the same per-pupil rate as the public schools, is a new one. 

What it means, as the former Republican chair of the Assembly education committee, Steve Castell (R-Sheboygan), observed in a 2014 exit interview, is that Wisconsin is trying to fund “two parallel systems” out of one, limited pot of education money — in impossibility. Rep. Even Goyke (D-Milwaukee) quoted Castell while explaining his vote against the Republican private school funding bill on the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday.

The disparity between those two parallel systems — one public and one private — is growing “greater and greater and greater” in his district, Goyke said. A big driver is the state’s failure to cover its share of the ballooning cost of meeting special ed kids’ needs.

And, contrary to the cries for “justice” from the school choice lobby, private schools are hardly at a disadvantage. Not only are private schools taking a larger and larger chunk of public school funding in Wisconsin, they operate without public oversight from elected school boards, offshore transportation expenses onto local public schools, and are getting reimbursed by the state at a 90% rate for special education costs, compared to the 30% rate for the special ed costs that are eating up public school budgets.

Worse, as Goyke explained, the money slated for public schools is “sum certain”– a wonky term that means there’s a limited pot of money available and once it runs out there’s no more to cover additional costs. The money that goes to private schools, in contrast, is “sum sufficient,” meaning the state is committed to covering 90% of special ed costs no matter how high they go.

Private schools, unlike public schools, are also under no obligation to serve special ed students, and can refuse to admit them or expel them at will, while public schools are required under federal law to pay the cost of meeting all students’ needs.

And that right there is the heart of the difference between our public and private school systems. Our public school system arises from a social contract in which we, as citizens of our state, have committed ourselves to ensure that all the children of Wisconsin receive a free, adequate education.

That’s very different from the “choice” model, where, in a competitive system with winners and losers, individual parents have the right to jockey for the best school for their children.

‘Staggering’ transfer of resources to private schools

Some of those private school parents, students, and staff, testifying in favor of the choice expansion Tuesday, spoke passionately about why they love their schools — the small class sizes, individualized attention, culturally appropriate instruction, and a deep commitment to helping kids succeed.

At the same time, even choice advocates acknowledged, many choice schools have struggled, failed, and closed their doors.

Private schools don’t have the same level of public oversight and accountability as public schools. But “the real accountability,” argued School Choice Wisconsin’s Jim Bender, is that parents can vote with their feet to leave, and then schools shut down.

But investing in a stable system of quality public schools that kids can count on to be there for them year after year is better public policy than a free market free-for-all, where some kids score a great education and others fall through the cracks.

Evers knows this, of course. He understands how important the state’s commitment to public education is. And he has to recognize what Vos acknowledged in answer to a question about the 20,000 new spots his bill will create for private schools.

That number is based on “estimates from the choice advocates,” Vos said, tacitly acknowledging the real authors of his bill. There are empty seats in existing choice schools that will be filled, Vos said. “And then, you’re right, over time as the [enrollment] caps themselves expire …” The sky’s the limit for Wisconsin’s private school expansion, he could have added, but didn’t.

Under existing state law, all caps on both income and enrollment for Wisconsin’s publicly funded private school choice system are scheduled to come off in 2026. The Republican proposal this year to dramatically boost the state’s commitment to cover tuition in those schools comes just in time to kick off a massive transfer of resources to private schools.

Jenni Hofschulte, a public school advocate from Milwaukee, calls the transfer of money from public to private schools in the Republican proposal “staggering.”

“We have a historic surplus and a huge opportunity to make public education whole … and they aren’t,” she said. “They gleefully are not.”

Still, says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, “it’s not too late.” She and other public school advocates are waiting to see what the governor will do.

Evers has not commented on the details of the bills the GOP just rushed through.

If paving the way for massive school privatization is not what he thought he was agreeing to in his deal with legislators, Evers should say so, and get out his veto pen. After all, he won reelection in a race where his opponent, Tim Michels, made privatizing the entire Wisconsin public school system a key campaign issue. Evers, in contrast, told Wisconsin, “I will always do what’s best for kids.”

The Republicans’ school funding proposal is definitely not what’s best for kids.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.