Wisconsin Debates Religious Vouchers

Controversy Ignites ‘Battle of the Century’

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Cleo

Photo: Cleo

Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson has launched a set of initiatives that, while cloaked in populist rhetoric of parental choice and property tax relief, would propel Wisconsin into the national forefront of the assault on quality public education.

The most significant initiative is Thompson’s plan to allow public tax dollars to fund private religious schools. The proposal, part of his 1995-97 budget, is being closely watched by conservatives across the country who so far have been unsuccessful in convincing voters that more than 200 years of the separation of church and state should be abandoned under the guise of school reform.

“We think this is going to be a fierce donnybrook,” notes Mordecai Lee of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education, which includes groups ranging from the American Association of University Women to the NAACP, the Wisconsin Congress of PTAs, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and the National Council of Jewish Women. “This is the church-state fight of the century for the Wisconsin legislature.”

Thompson’s educational proposals are a virtual grab-bag of Republican goodies. His budget, which will be debated throughout the spring before passage by the legislature this June or July, also puts a conservative spin on issues ranging from charter schools to public-private partnerships. He has also proposed to essentially do away with the state’s Department of Public Instruction and abolish the elected post of State Superintendent. Educational responsibilities would be transferred to a newly created Department of Education headed by a Thompson appointed secretary — a move that critics call an out-and-out power grab.

Most problematic are Thompson’s funding initiatives. He has proposed permanent spending caps on public schools and has transformed a promise to increase state funding of schools into a plan that eases the local property tax burden for rich and poor districts alike, but does little to promote funding equity or provide additional resources for education.

Thompson has thrown “everything but the kitchen sink” into the budget, notes Milwaukee School Board President Mary Bills. When one wades through the details of the 3,000-page document, one theme emerges, she adds. “It all leads to the fundamental conservative position, which is to reduce the cost of education now and into the future.”

Religious Vouchers

The voucher plan for religious schools is part of a proposed expansion of the Milwaukee choice program under which low-income children attend private, non-sectarian schools in the city using a state voucher of $3,208. The Milwaukee experiment is currently the only program in the country allowing publicly funded vouchers for private K-12 schools. But the program has never reached its limit; while the state has agreed to pay for as many as 1,500 students to attend private schools, only 850 students do so. So now the governor proposes to open the program to Milwaukee’s financially strapped and under-utilized religious schools. Under Thompson’s proposal, a $3,300 voucher would be offered to 3,500 students in the fall of 1996, growing to about 5,500 students the following year. After that, there would be no limit. Participating families must earn no more than 175% of the national poverty level. Schools must be in Milwaukee.

When the Milwaukee program was instituted in 1989, critics argued that it was crafted as a politically palatable program serving low-income minority students in non-sectarian schools only as a way to open the door to a complete voucher program.

The current debate validates that prediction.

Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist recently took the offensive to promote this larger agenda and publicly proposed the elimination of income restrictions on those eligible for vouchers. “Unfortunately, the limitations on Thompson’s choice proposal include an income restriction that precludes

participation by thousands of middle class families in Milwaukee,” Norquist wrote in a column in the Feb. 26 Wisconsin State Journal.“Every student and parent should be allowed to direct some of the state dollars now expended on that student’s public education. … Let’s serve all families with the benefits of school choice.”

It is precisely such political pressures that worry John Witte, the University of Wisconsin researcher who was chosen by the state to evaluate the Milwaukee choice program and who continues to support the experiment. Expanding the program to religious schools would open the door to subsidies “for all private schools in the state without any limitations,” Witte argued in a letter to Wisconsin legislators in mid-February. “I do not believe vouchers could be limited to poor children in Milwaukee once this change is made.”

Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams (D-Milwaukee), the legislator who sponsored the original legislation and who has carved out a national reputation as a result, has also expressed reservations about such possibilities. Williams has made it clear that she is not happy that Thompson sidestepped her in developing his latest proposals. “The governor didn’t talk to me until after he talked to the business community,” Williams complained to The Milwaukee Sentinel in an article Feb. 20. “This is what the business community wanted.”

Williams has called for the religious voucher proposal to be separated from the existing choice program. She worries that opponents might successfully argue that the program violates separation of church and state and that the experiment, including the existing program, would be thrown out.

Republican leaders, who following the November elections control both the Assembly and the Senate, have said they plan to keep the voucher proposal intact within the budget. They hope it is thus more likely to pass, in part because legislators will not have to openly vote yes or no on the voucher plan. Further, the governor has far more ability to control items that are part of the budget, because he can use his line-tem veto to change figures and wording.

Such powers are not available to the governor on non-budget legislation.

Supporters of vouchers, who range from Williams to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), are also divided over the extent that the private schools should be able to screen and expel students. “I think that the [pro-voucher] coalition has such conflicting agendas that it may well self-destruct,” Lee predicts. “If somebody has an agenda that has to do with minority children and someone else has an agenda that has to do with privatizing public education … those interests will diverge.”

The racism of some voucher supporters was exposed in a Milwaukee Sentinel article on Feb. 18. Richard Abdoo, chairman of Wisconsin Energy Corp. and chair of the MMAC’s education committee, told the paper’s editorial board during a discussion on vouchers that MPS is “creating an army of illiterates” and that MPS graduates are “in the lowest 10% in the U.S.” He also said that students at Messmer Catholic high school are achieving, whereas if they were in MPS “they’d be in a gang somewhere.”

Vouchers supporters also have not demonstrated how their program will help the district’s most difficult age group, high school students. Among the city’s six Catholic high schools, for example, there are only 474 open seats, according to figures from the private voucher program Partners Advancing Values in Education. Furthermore, 279 of those seats are at the three single-sex Catholic schools. Unless they change their policies, these schools would be unable to take part in the state-funded voucher program because they discriminate on the basis of gender.

More than 70% of MPS students are children of color. Students in religious schools in the city are predominantly white, particularly in the high schools. Among Catholic high schools, for instance, only 19% are students of color; only 9% are African-American. Most of the minority students are at one high school, Messmer.

There is also evidence that safeguards placed on the original voucher program will, in the long run, be eliminated. For instance, the original legislation mandated that no more than 49% of the students at a participating school consist of voucher students. This was to safeguard against the establishment of questionable schools by entrepreneurs with little background in education. That percentage was later changed to 65%. The current proposal would do away with any restrictions, making it theoretically possible for a private school to consist entirely of publicly funded voucher students.

Yet these essentially public schools would have no public accountability. Private schools in Wisconsin, for example, are not required to meet requirements such as the Wisconsin Open Meetings and Records Law, or to make public their financial audits, employee wages and benefits, the number of dropouts, or their standardized test scores.

Support for religious schools also crops up in the governor’s provisions for charter schools. As part of the budget, Milwaukee is allowed to establish religious charter schools. MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller said he did not request this provision. “I don’t know what it means,” he told Rethinking Schools.Fuller has praised many aspects of the governor’s education initiatives, in particular measures that eliminate requirements that charter school staff be district employees and that support school contracts with private businesses. Lee, of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Schools, sees the charter proposal as a back-door way to fund religious schools. “It is clearly an effort by the governor to create de facto religious schools even if he loses the fight over explicit religious school choice,” he said.

Funding Proposals

Receiving less publicity, but equally important for the future of public education, are the governor’s funding proposals. Media attention has focused on the governor’s plan to come up with an additional $1.2 billion in state aid in order to increase state funding of schools to 66% by 1997. In order to fulfill promises that he won’t raise or expand taxes, the governor has come up with the money in part by gutting other important social and environmental programs. Further, much of the money that is to be funneled into education is based on hopes and promises, not on hard cash. For example, roughly $150 million is based on borrowing from future budgets and $407 million is to come from hoped-for increases in state revenue due to an expanding economy.

While the governor’s budget makes some small steps toward funding equity, it is primarily focused on reducing school property taxes, even for wealthy districts. “The major issues in school finance equity have not been resolved in this budget proposal,” notes Doug Haselow, the chief lobbyist for MPS and one of the few people in the state knowledgeable about the budget’s details. Haselow noted that the Association for Equity in Funding is continuing with plans to file a lawsuit to compel the state to provide greater equity in school funding. The association consists of 150 of the state’s 427 school districts.

Haselow said the budget is so complicated that even Thompson’s Department of Administration hasn’t been able to answer specific questions. He points to just one detail to underscore the budget’s complexity in regard to school financing.

Currently, every district receives minimum aid which comes to roughly $175 per student, and more for property-poor districts. The governor has abolished such aid, so he can then say he is promoting equity because he is not automatically giving minimum aid money to wealthy school districts. At the same time, however, he has created a new category called primary aid, which in effect will give every district at least $250 per pupil.

The budget also fails to address the needs of districts with large proportions of poor students. “Yet all of the research shows that you should target more resources to the poverty population,” Haselow argues. “There is nothing in this budget that provides additional resources for the poverty population.”

Finally, the budget institutes permanent spending caps. Schools will only be allowed to increase spending $194 per pupil not only in the 1995-96 school year, but in subsequent years, regardless of inflation.

Three other proposals have significant implications but have been largely ignored by the media. The first is an inter-district school choice program under which pupils may attend school outside of their district. Tuition, however, would be paid by the home district. Thus if an MPS student transferred to the Nicolet District, MPS would have to pay the full tuition of $11,600. The scheme potentially will further drain resources from Milwaukee.

Second, the bill reduces the age for compulsory school attendance from 18 to 17. No one has yet publicly proposed any rationale for the change. Critics note that it will, by legislative fiat, allow state officials to wash their hands of the most difficult school population.

Finally, the bill would expand state-mandated testing. Current law requires statewide comprehensive exams in the 8th and 10th grades. The budget proposal expands the program to 4th grade students beginning in 1997.