Sending thousands more students to private, religious schools under an expansion of Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program could shift $600 million to $800 million out of public schools over the next decade, according to a memo from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The statewide voucher program is currently capped at 1,000 students and would cost about $75 million over the same time period if it is not expanded. The Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee last week approved language for the 2015-17 spending plan that would lift the cap gradually over the next 10 years.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) memo, drafted for Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and released Thursday, said the actual cost of the statewide voucher program over the next 10 years will depend on how many new students join the program. About 3,000 students could participate in the statewide voucher system by the 2016-17 school year, the memo said.
The LFB’s cost estimate factors in the number of students currently attending private schools, the number of those students with a family income of below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and how the Milwaukee voucher system expanded over 10 years.
The $600 to $800 million figure may be a conservative estimate because it assumes family income eligibility limits won’t be increased. Currently in Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs families can qualify at incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. It also is not clear what assumptions are used about how many additional schools will join the statewide program and where they would be located.
Overall, roughly $4.5 billion annually is devoted to general school funding in the proposed state budget. The cost for new students in the statewide voucher program over the next two years is projected to be about $37 million. In the last state budget, about $384 million was appropriated for the state’s three voucher systems–Milwaukee, Racine and statewide.
Currently, the vouchers are paid from a separate appropriation that is apart from general school aids.
Under the changes, school districts would lose $7,210 in aid for each K-8 student and $7,856 for high school students. Districts could not raise taxes to make up for the aid reduction.
Since the statewide voucher program was created two years ago, the majority of students receiving vouchers were already attending private schools.
The funding change masks the true cost of the voucher program expansion and the harm that expansion will do to public schools by ‘washing’ the dollars through the aid formula for public schools. It also means lawmakers will no longer need to appropriate additional state dollars to fund voucher expansion because the voucher payment now comes from a fixed amount of money the state appropriates to pay school district aid.