The Payoff on School Voucher Expansion

May 20, 2015

Pro-school voucher interests, which have spent an estimated $4.3 million on outside electioneering activities to support Republican legislative candidates, have scored another legislative victory to increase spending and sharply expand the statewide program.

The Joint Finance Committee, which is considering GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-17 state budget, decided Tuesday to increase spending on the statewide school voucher program by $48 million over the next two years, and to expand the cap on the program to 1 percent of the student population in each of the state’s school districts in the next year. And that percentage would go up steadily over the next decade, after which there would be no cap whatsoever. The statewide voucher program, which allows pupils whose families meet income requirements to attend private and religious schools at taxpayer expense, is currently limited to 1,000 pupils statewide. The committee also approved a new program to pay for vouchers for children with special needs.

The changes were opposed by Democrats and by disability rights advocacy groups - here and here. They say the continued diversion of taxpayer dollars from the state’s public schools to private voucher and charter schools hurts the quality of public education. In addition, private schools do not have to follow federal disability laws.

But Republicans, who control the Joint Finance Committee and the legislature by wide margins, generally support increasing the size of the voucher program and spending on it. Republicans gained full control of the legislature and the governor’s office in the 2010 elections and have used the past two state budgets to increase spending on the voucher program to about $212 million, from $131 million under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s last year in office.

One of the leading advocates for Wisconsin’s school voucher program is the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children, which spent an estimated $4.3 million on legislative elections between 2010 and 2014 to support Republican candidates. During the same period, the group spent only about $230,000 on behalf of Democratic legislative candidates. Among the federation’s key advisers is political strategist and former GOP legislative leader Scott Jensen.

The most money spent on outside election activities by the federation was in 2011 when it doled out an estimated $1.3 million mostly on television ads and brochures to support three of nine state senators who faced recall elections for their support or opposition to Walker’s successful plan to slash public employee collective bargaining rights. The three Republican senators, who won their recalls and are current members of the Joint Finance Committee, are Sen. Alberta Darling, of River Hills, the committee’s co-chair; Sen. Luther Olsen, of Ripon; and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, of River Falls.

Walker himself received nearly $1.3 million contributions from voucher supporters since 2009. They also spent $1.1 million to help Walker win his 2012 recall election.