Wis. governor says voucher deal 'pretty close'

Scott Bauer, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Friday that a proposed deal cut with Republican state lawmakers that would expand private school vouchers statewide is "pretty close to completed."

Walker said in an interview with The Associated Press that he supports parameters of the deal that would expand vouchers to every district in the state but limit enrollment to no more than 1,000 students after next year. No more than 1 percent of students from any one district, outside of Milwaukee and Racine, could participate.

Walker's original plan would have allowed vouchers in only nine cities and there would be no enrollment caps after two years.

Conservatives have attacked the plan because of the limits on enrollment, while opponents of vouchers say they should not be allowed to expand statewide because over time participation in the program will grow and take resources away from public schools.

But Walker on Friday said he was sticking by the deal he hammered out this week with Republican legislative leaders. Walker, responding to the conservative criticisms, said enrollment caps can always be loosened later.

"Every two years we're going to come back and talk about further expansion," he said.

The program, which provides students with taxpayer funded voucher to attend private and religious schools, began in Milwaukee in 1989. It was the first of its kind in the country.

In Walker's 2011 budget, the program expanded to Racine and income eligibility levels were increased to 300 percent of the federal poverty rate.

This year, Walker proposed another expansion to any school district that has at least 4,000 students and two schools that score poorly on new state report cards. That would have applied to only nine districts, including Madison and Green Bay.

But some prominent Republicans, namely Senate President Mike Ellis and Education Committee chairman Sen. Luther Olsen, balked at using the report cards as a trigger.

Under the latest deal, the report cards would no longer be a factor. Instead, vouchers would be everywhere but with a cap of 500 next school year and 1,000 after that.

The deal would also tighten income eligibility, limiting new enrollees to students from families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty rate instead of 300 percent as Walker wanted.

Walker reiterated that his goal was always to grow the program beyond Milwaukee and Racine, and the pending deal would do that. He said there may still be a few "little tweaks in terms of the particulars," but the major components of the agreement are solid.

"We're pretty close to completed there," Walker said.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who worked with Walker on the deal, also said Friday that only a few "loose ends" remained to be tied up. Fitzgerald said they were moving slowly to make sure the plan works as intended.

"We want to proceed in a cautious fashion," he said.

Public school advocates and Democrats have blasted the plan, even though it allows public school spending to increase $150 per-student in each of the next two years. Walker's original budget had no public school spending increase.

State superintendent Tony Evers, the state teachers union, school boards association and others have all blasted the plan as being too expansive despite the enrollment limits.

"When we're talking about statewide expansion of voucher schools we're talking about moving into communities that don't want or need them, and in most cases are downright outspoken in their opposition to them," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. "We're talking about diminished resources for students in our neighborhood public schools while private voucher schools essentially get a blank check at taxpayer expense with zero accountability."

Walker said it was his intention to make sure data from private schools in the voucher program are included in future report cards, so their performance can be measured against public schools.