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Wisconsin Republicans expected to push private-school vouchers, charter-school expansion in 2013 session
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Gov. Scott Walker's second most controversial move, after ending collective bargaining rights for public employees, was a package of school-choice proposals and budget cuts that aim to remake public education in the state.

In the upcoming legislative session, which opens Jan. 7, many of the ideas that generated packed hearing rooms, hours of tearful testimony and, ultimately, a divided Republican caucus are coming back.

"We're hopeful the Legislature will extend additional school-choice options through independent charters and private schools," says former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, now a lobbyist for the American Federation for Children.

"We're talking with legislators about a lot of things," adds Jensen, who declined to comment on specific proposals. But, he says, "We're optimistic."

In a December meeting with school superintendents and business managers from around the state, Assembly Education Committee Chair Steve Kestell (R-Sheboygan) told the group they can expect to see an expansion of private-school vouchers and the revival of a controversial special-education voucher bill, as well as a new push for state-authorized charter schools that operate independently of local school boards.

And in November, Walker gave a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in which he emphasized his commitment to school choice, including charter and virtual schools: "Every child - no matter what ZIP code they come from, no matter what their parents' background - every child in my state and in this country should have the opportunity to have access to world-class education."

It's a popular Republican refrain. As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a recent speech at the Brookings Institution: "I think there is a moral imperative that it's not right that only wealthy parents get to decide where their kids go to school.

"If you are a low-income parent residing in an urban area in America, it is more likely than not your child attends a failing school," he added. "And, unless you are fortunate enough to live in New Orleans, or Milwaukee, or Cleveland, you have no options, no recourse."

School choice is shaping up to be a national Republican theme in the coming year. And Wisconsin is at the center of it.

Mixed results

Milwaukee was the first city in the nation to launch a private-school voucher program in 1990. By September 2012, more than 24,000 students were participating, attending 112 private schools through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which pays up to $6,442 in state aid per student to cover private-school tuition.

The program has been a national lightning rod for decades, pitting public-school advocates against groups that favor privatization. The controversy over Milwaukee's voucher program has long featured a headline-making clash between public-school teachers and Democrats on the one side, and on the other African Americans who view the program as a ticket for poor black kids out of failing schools.

Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee) became the face of the national school-choice movement when she drafted the original voucher plan with then-Gov. Tommy Thompson. Former Milwaukee Public School District Superintendent Howard Fuller was a big proponent before founding the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which is funded by the conservative Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, as well as the Gates and Walton Family foundations - big supporters of the national school-choice movement.

But for all the controversy, the results have been mixed.

Last spring, in the statewide math and reading tests known as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE), students at Milwaukee's voucher schools did worse than their public-school peers.

"The scores released by the state Department of Public Instruction cast a shadow on the overall quality of the 21-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. "The scores also raise concerns about Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to roll back the mandate that voucher schools participate in the current state test."

Huge players in state politics

The debate over school choice took a new turn last year when Gov. Walker's cuts in school funding and privatization plans brought rural voters to the state Capitol in droves, and pushed Republican legislators to table their school-choice plans.

With school choice, local public-school districts stand to lose students and state aid, threatening the viability of public schools.

In rural areas, where whole communities revolve around the local school (and where low enrollment has already caused painful school closings), there is a real threat that the combination of budget cuts and the expansion of school choice will mean, as one teacher put it in an emotional Education Committee hearing, "Our town will die."

Adding fuel to the fire, Republicans in the Legislature were also outraged when Walker announced at a speech last year in Washington, D.C., his plans to expand the voucher program to districts all over the state.

Senate Republicans, including, most publicly, Senate President Mike Ellis, were unhappy that they had not been consulted first. Their opposition caused Republican legislative leaders to revise the budget language to curtail the voucher expansion.

But since then, school-choice groups have poured money into state Republican campaigns.

Between mid-October 2011 and mid-January 2012, at the same time the debate over the voucher expansion was going on, 15 wealthy contributors who support expanding school choice gave $443,550 to Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported.

School-choice groups have become huge players in state politics, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's Mike McCabe points out.

"They may not be the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, but they're big - 500 or 600 pounds at least," McCabe says.

In the recall race, American Federation for Children was Walker's third-biggest PAC supporter, at $555,000, behind Right Direction Wisconsin at $700,000 and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce at $660,000.

National school-privatization groups are part of "a small constellation of interest groups" that include anti-abortion groups and the National Rifle Association, and have a major influence on state races, McCabe says.

McCabe sees school-choice groups as a classic example of what has happened to campaign finance in general: It has gone national.

"In-state interests have almost become bystanders," he says. "What you've got is national movements coming in and hijacking state campaigns."

A prime example is Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway family fortune in Michigan and a big spender in Wisconsin political campaigns lately.

"He doesn't have any roots here, but he's a big player," McCabe points out. "He's just one of many who promote school privatization all over the country."

The American Federation for Children, which has also spent millions on issue ads to influence legislative races in Wisconsin, is headed by Betsy DeVos, wife of Dick DeVos.

Battles on the horizon

This tension between financial backers and constituents leaves Republicans in an interesting position.

"I think they want to do the right thing, but their big funders [the national school-choice groups] are telling them, 'Now is the time to cash in,'" says state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma), who sits on the Education Committee.

In Vinehout's view, even Scott Walker is torn about how far to push. After all, he has to run for reelection statewide. And voters in rural parts of the state may be up in arms if their local schools close.

Last year, parents and disability rights advocates battled special-education voucher legislation, which set a cash grant of $13,000 for disabled kids to attend private schools. It did not require that those schools offer the kind of specialists or facilities public schools must provide under the law. Nor was there an income cap, so wealthy parents could use the grant to supplement a more expensive private-school tuition.

If Rep. Kestell's predictions are correct, it is likely these battles will be on the horizon for 2013 as well. Public-school advocates are also bracing to see how Walker's plan to tie school funding to performance - by giving more money to schools that do well on the state's new school report cards - will play out. Under the new report card system, each school got an accountability score on a scale of 0 to 100 and a grade - from "significantly exceeds expectations" to "fails to meet expectations" - based on various measures of performance, including the WKCE.

The worry is that if more funding goes to high-performing schools (which tend to be in wealthier districts), and private schools, independent charters and voucher schools are all drawing resources away from schools that are already handling the neediest students, the students who need the most support could be stranded in the schools with the least resources.

Sen. Vinehout is hoping to persuade Walker to instead adopt state Superintendent Tony Evers' Fair Funding Formula, which reallocates resources so the neediest schools get more.

The proposal would take money out of the state's property-tax credit program and put it into school aid.

"There would be winners and losers, in terms of the property tax," Vinehout concedes, which is why this proposal is such a political hot potato.

But, she says, "There would be no more referenda. And it would follow a more fair system of distribution."

Several schools in Vinehout's district in northwest Wisconsin would have closed had voters not approved property-tax hikes through local school referenda. Madison was able last year to postpone painful program cuts by taking $15 million out of teachers' compensation and exceeding spending caps thanks to the 2008 referendum - but that option expires this year.

"So actually, when the governor says he lowered property taxes, in my world he hasn't," says Vinehout, "because people will tax themselves to pay for the local school, although they would prefer not to."

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