School Voucher Lobby Succeeds Again

August 30, 2017

A GOP plan is moving forward to expand the statewide school voucher program. School voucher supporters mostly from outside Wisconsin have spent millions of dollars to help elect Republican legislative and statewide candidates.

The proposed increase sought by Senate Republicans would increase the income limit for a family of four from 185 percent of the poverty level, or about $45,200 a year, to 220 percent of the poverty level, or about $53,400 a year. The higher income levels, which could allow about 550 more pupils into the statewide program, would not apply to the Racine or Milwaukee voucher programs. The statewide voucher program currently has about 3,000 students.

The Racine, Milwaukee and statewide school voucher programs were provided about $244 million in taxpayer funds last school year to allow about 34,000 pupils to attend private and religious schools. The voucher programs reduce state funding to school districts when students leave to attend private voucher schools.

The voucher plan, which was not part of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2017-19 budget being reviewed by the legislature, was approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on a party line 12-4 vote. Republicans control the Assembly 64-35 and the Senate 20-13.

Assembly Republicans, who have been at odds for two months with Senate leaders over transportation funding and other issues in the proposed budget, had sought to increase the income limit to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,400 a year, to participate in the statewide voucher program.

The state’s first school voucher program created around 1990 in Milwaukee was originally intended to help pupils from poor families attend private 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.

The federation issued a statement commending the committee’s action.

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.