By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's voucher school program would expand to nine districts across the state, including Green Bay and Madison, under the budget proposal Gov. Scott Walker will submit to the Legislature on Wednesday.
The expansion would only be allowed in districts that have at least two school buildings receiving a D or F grade on state report cards and have at least 4,000 students. Walker provided details to The Associated Press in advance of releasing it publicly on Monday.
"We're willing to see the choice program grow," Walker told the AP in an interview. "I think we're doing it in a responsible way."
Expansion of the voucher program beyond Milwaukee and Racine, where it is currently offered, has been a priority of Walker's. But it will unleash a tough fight in the Legislature, even among more moderate Republicans in the state Senate who have pushed back against growth in the program that makes taxpayer money available to families to subsidize a private school education.
Republican Senate President Mike Ellis, who has fought expansion of vouchers, called Walker's proposal flawed. He said it was wrong to allow an entire district to qualify even if is has only a couple of failing schools.
"That means a student from a non-failing school could take the slot of a student from a poor school," Ellis said.
Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, expressed similar concerns.
"That's his proposal and we'll see what the Legislature does when we get through with the budget," Olsen said.
Both Ellis and Olsen have said they will oppose automatic expansion of vouchers without residents in the affected school districts first approving them through a referendum. Walker opposes that requirement and did not include it in his proposal.
Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the Senate, but losing two Republican senators would make it more difficult to get any measure passed there. Walker's decision to include voucher expansion in his budget, and not as a separate bill, makes it easier to pass as part of the larger spending package.
Because Walker's criteria for qualifying are not static, the number of new districts that would eventually be allowed in isn't clear. Wisconsin has 42 districts with at least 4,000 students, but only nine have at least two schools with a failing grade. They are Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis-West Milwaukee.
Under Walker's proposal, enrollment would be capped at 500 students starting in the 2013 school year and 1,000 students the next year.
The plan won praise from School Choice Wisconsin, a group that advocates for expanding vouchers statewide.
"We think it's great," said Jim Bender, the group's president. "We think there're going to be a lot of new opportunities for kids all over Wisconsin."
The school voucher movement is a powerful force in Wisconsin. School Choice Wisconsin has two former Republican speakers of the state Assembly -- John Gard and Jeff Fitzgerald -- working to advance its cause. And a third Republican speaker, Scott Jensen, works as a lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, another group that supports expanding vouchers.
The program gives eligible parents a state-funded voucher of $6,442 per child to defray their children's private school tuition. Walker would increase that reimbursement to $7,050 for students through eighth grade and $7,856 for high schoolers starting with the 2014 school year.
His budget includes $73 million in new money over two years for the voucher program.
Conservatives insist it gives children in underperforming schools an alternative, but opponents say it takes needed money away from public schools and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education.
Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, said she expects some of the districts that would qualify under Walker's plan to speak out against it like they have in the past. While Democrats don't have the votes to stop the plan, Pope said she hoped more moderate Republicans like Ellis and Olsen could at least narrow the expansion.
Walker said his goal was to improve educational opportunities for students all across the state.
"Our goal isn't necessarily to add more choice schools, our goal is to improve options for kids," Walker said.
Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to approve vouchers in 1990. Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature last session expanded vouchers to Racine, eliminated an enrollment cap in Milwaukee and raised income limits to allow middle class students to participate. The Legislature also permitted students in the city of Milwaukee to use vouchers at private schools in Milwaukee County.
The voucher program is available only to students whose families earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty rate, or $69,801 for a family of four. Walker doesn't change that eligibility level.
There is no limit on enrollment in the Milwaukee program, which gave out 24,000 vouchers this school year. Racine reached its cap of 500 vouchers this year, but there will be no limit starting next year.