$8.5M Reasons Wisconsin GOP Wants to Expand School Vouchers

July 25, 2017

Applet, Text Books and Cash

Assembly and Senate Republican lawmakers wrangling over the proposed 2017-19 state budget agree on at least one major policy item: More state spending and higher income eligibility limits for the state’s school voucher programs, whose supporters spend millions of dollars to elect GOP candidates.

Currently, families with an annual income at less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $45,260 for a family of four, qualify for private school vouchers from the state.

Assembly Republicans, who hold a 64-35 majority, have proposed giving private-school vouchers to families at 300 percent of the poverty level, which amounts to an annual income of about $73,400 for a family of four. Senate Republicans, who hold a 20-13 majority, want to raise the income limit to 220 percent, which amounts to an annual income of about $53,400 for a family of four.

The state’s school voucher program, which was originally intended to help poor families, provides state tax dollars to allow pupils to attend private and religious schools. School vouchers are generally supported by Republicans as an alternative to state-funded public schools. Most Democrats claim voucher programs are ineffective, unaccountable, and reduce resources for public education.

Between January 2010 and December 2016, mostly out-of-state school voucher interests doled out about $8.5 million for direct campaign contributions and outside election spending in legislative and statewide races – nearly all of it to support Republican candidates.

Special interest outside election spending by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, which was founded by President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, totaled about $6.4 million between January 2010 and December 2016. A leader of the American Federation for Children in Wisconsin is none other than the disgraced former Speaker of the Assembly, Republican Scott Jensen.

Campaign contributions by mostly out-of-state millionaires and billionaires who support vouchers totaled about $2.1 million.

Topping the list of pro-voucher contributors to legislative and statewide candidates in Wisconsin since January 2010 were Robert and Patricia Kern, of Waukesha, founders of Generac Corp., about $283,000; Foster and Lynnette Friess, of Jackson, Wyo., owners of Friess Associates, $162,200; and Dennis Kuester, of Milwaukee, retired chairman of M&I Bank, and his wife, Sandy, $126,400.

Top recipients of pro-voucher cash since January 2010 were Republican Gov. Scott Walker, about $1.3 million; GOP Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, about $104,890; and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, $63,650.

The two houses have been unable to resolve their differences over transportation, tax and education policy and spending in the proposed budget, which was supposed to take effective July 1.