Voucher expansion continues to drain state aid from public schools and boost property taxes

Overall enrollment in Wisconsin’s three main private school voucher programs (Milwaukee, Racine and statewide) increased by about 8.7 percent over last year’s voucher enrollment.  Taxpayers will spend $302 million this year on vouchers to send students to private schools, an increase of about $33 million (12.3 percent) over last year.

The expansion, particularly in the Racine and statewide voucher programs, is also likely to fuel property tax increases as vouchers for additional students in the statewide and Racine voucher programs are funded by deducting state aid from the school district in which each student resides.

School boards in districts affected by the aid deductions are given the option to increase property taxes in the amount of the state aid deducted or make cuts to local district programs and staff.  As a result, taxpayers in those districts could face a total allowable property tax increase of $68.3 million this year, up from $42.8 million last year.

Editor’s Note:  Voucher proponents have skillfully persuaded state policymakers to shift the costs of voucher expansion in the Racine and statewide programs from the state to property taxpayers.  In the process voters have been misled into believing that the tuition of thousands of private school students can be paid using public funds without it costing anything, and that is clearly not the case.

The WASB supports transparency in voucher funding.  To provide this transparency property tax bills should be changed to clearly inform taxpayers and voters about the portion local tax levy that is going toward financing private school tuition for students on publicly funded vouchers.

Much of the increase in voucher enrollment is among students living outside Milwaukee and Racine, with the biggest enrollment increase coming in the statewide voucher program (known officially as the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP).  It grew from 4,534 students last year to 7,140 students this year, a 57 percent rise. The number of private schools participating in the statewide voucher program also increased from 154 last year to 213 this year.

The increase in students and participating schools was not unexpected given that two limitations on enrollment in the statewide voucher program were eased this year.

  • Income eligibility for the statewide voucher program was expanded.  Children from families with annual incomes up to 220 percent of the federal poverty level can now qualify.  Formerly, family income could not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • In addition, the limit on the number of voucher students allowed to enroll in the statewide voucher program from any given public school district was increased from 2 percent to 3 percent of the district’s enrollment. That percentage will increase by 1 percent each year until 2025-26 when it reaches 10 percent.  After that, the cap is removed.

Voucher payments in the 2018-19 school year for all three voucher programs are $7,754 per pupil in grades kindergarten through eight and $8,400 per pupil for pupils enrolled in grades nine through 12.