JFC Budget Expands Voucher Eligibility

The Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) voted yesterday (Aug. 28) to expand eligibility for the statewide voucher program in several ways.

Changes to family income eligibility–The measure drawing the most media attention calls for raising the family income eligibility limits for the statewide private voucher program from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 220 percent, beginning in the 2018-19 school year.   It is estimated that this change will allow an additional 550 students to participate in the statewide voucher program compared to current law and will reduce state aid to the public school districts in which those pupils reside by $4.4 million. There would be a corresponding adjustment in the revenue limits of the affected districts.

The family income limit is used only to determine initial eligibility to participate in a voucher program. Once a pupil qualifies based on family income, he or she can continue to receive a voucher regardless of an increase in family income above the eligibility limit.  Based on figures for the 2017-18 school year, a pupil living in a family of four can gain initial entry into the statewide voucher program if his or her family’s annual income is $44,955 or less.  Under the new limits approved by the JFC,  that same family of four could earn up to $53,460 per year and still be eligible for a voucher to attend a private school in the statewide voucher program.  (Dollar figures for the 2018-19 school year are not yet known at this time.)

The statewide voucher program operates outside of the Milwaukee and Racine school districts.  The Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs will continue to operate with a family income eligibility limit of 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Editor’s Note: The cost of payments for  pupils who first participated in the statewide and Racine voucher programs in the 2014-15 school year or earlier  are fully funded by the state. Payments for pupils who first participated in these two voucher programs in the 2015-16 school year or later are fully funded through an aid reduction in the general school aids that would otherwise be paid to those pupils’ school districts of residence. School districts receive a revenue limit adjustment equal to the aid reduction in the current year, and can count incoming choice pupils for general aid purposes on a prior year basis.

Changes to Income Verification–The JFC adopted a provision that specifies that if a pupil attended a private school under the Milwaukee, Racine or statewide voucher programs in the prior school year and applies to attend a private school in another voucher program in the school year immediately following, the family’s income would not have to be verified. This provision, which would first apply to pupils who attend in 2018-19, would enable roughly 100 voucher pupils to move into (newly participate in) the statewide or Racine voucher programs without income verification. The provision would reduce state aid to the public school districts in which those pupils reside by an estimated $795,000. There would be a corresponding adjustment in the revenue limits of the affected districts.

Changes to “Prior Year Attendance” Requirements–Under current law, to be eligible to enter the statewide or Racine voucher program, a pupil must also meet one of four prior year attendance requirements. The student must: (1) have been enrolled in a public school in his or her resident district in the previous school year; (2) not have been enrolled in school in the previous school year; (3) have been enrolled in a private school under the Racine or statewide voucher program in the previous school year or (4) be enrolling in kindergarten, first grade, or ninth grade in the current year.

  • Prior Year Attendance of Students Placed on a Waiting List–One of the JFC’s actions yesterday approved creating a separate additional prior year attendance requirement avenue to participation that will allow an additional 100 students to enter the statewide voucher program.Under this new criterion, a pupil who applied to attend a private school under the statewide voucher program but was placed on a waiting list because of school district enrollment limits would be able to enter the statewide voucher program regardless of grade level at the time of entry. This provision will reduce state aid to the public school districts in which those pupils reside by nearly $795,000. There would be a corresponding adjustment in the revenue limits of the affected districts.
  • Prior Year Attendance in an Out of State School–Another measure approved by the JFC would allow a pupil to enter either the statewide or Racine voucher program if he or she attended a school in another state in the prior year regardless of grade level if the pupil meets income and other requirements  No information was provided on how many additional students might enter the statewide or Racine voucher programs as a result of this change.
  • Attendance Criteria for Private School Networks that Combine Under One Governing Body–In a move that would have the single biggest impact on increasing participation in the statewide and Racine voucher programs of any action taken by the JFC, adding at least an estimated 800 pupils, the JFC approved another exception to prior year attendance requirements. This one specifies that with respect to the Racine and statewide voucher programs, if a private school that does not participate in a voucher program enters into an agreement to be subject to the same governing body as a private school that participated in either the Racine or statewide voucher program in the previous school year, the prior year attendance criteria would not apply in the first two school years in which the schools are subject to the same governing body. This provision would have the effect of allowing private school pupils enrolled in the private school to enter a voucher program regardless of grade level if the pupil meets income and other requirements.  This provision will reduce state aid to the public school districts in which those pupils reside by nearly $6.36 million in 2018-19 alone. There would be a corresponding adjustment in the revenue limits of the affected districts in 2018-19.  This scenario could be repeated in 2019-20 as the exception lasts for two years.

These measures were all included as part of an omnibus motion on K-12 education (Motion #409), offered by majority Republicans.  That motion was approved on a 12-4 party line vote.

Note: The committee did not take up K-12 items related to special needs vouchers yesterday (Aug. 28) nor did it take up items related to open enrollment of special needs students.  Those items will be taken up on Sept. 5.