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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Madison school board candidates Greg Packnett and James Howard discuss Walker's budget, voucher schools

Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.

The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.

In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.

In the race for Seat 4, incumbent James Howard is running against Greg Packnett, a Democratic legislative aide.

In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates.

For this fourth and final week of questions, we ask candidates to evaluate Gov. Scott Walker's proposals for the Wisconsin's 2013-15 budget, and consider how it would impact schools in the state. Along similar lines, we ask candidates to share their thoughts on the proposal to expand voucher schools in Wisconsin.

What do you think about Gov. Scott Walker's funding priorities for Wisconsin schools in his proposed 2013-15 budget?

Greg Packnett
Gov. Walker's budget, with its expansion of the voucher program and the special needs vouchers, represents a massive transfer of funding from public schools to private schools that will be devastating to our public school system. It takes funding away from the districts and students who need it the most and gives it to those who need it the least.

It's a reflection of the right-wing idea that everything should be run like a business. The flaw in this ideology is that if a business leaves some of its customers dissatisfied before going out of business, it's really no big deal. It's no tragedy if a family dining out has bad service or bad food. But if we're treating schools like a business, their "dissatisfied customers" are their students, and we can't afford to let any of them fail. The effects of a substandard education will stay with them for a lot longer than a substandard restaurant meal.

Different students present different challenges: students who don't speak English take more resources to educate than those that do, as do students with disabilities, and students growing up in poverty. The differences we see in performance across different districts and schools can be explained almost entirely by the makeup of the student body, not the quality of the programming in the schools. Every child deserves a great education, and the only way to ensure that every child gets the education they deserve is to ensure that their schools have funding adequate to their needs.

James Howard
Unfortunately, Governor Scott Walker's funding priorities for Wisconsin does harm to our public educational system by taking money away from current programs and school districts by directing those funds to the private sector by establishing voucher programs and private charters. Walker's plan would cost $73 million in the state budget, plus $21 million in a separate voucher program for special-needs students, and an extra $23 million for independent charter schools that aren't run by public school districts.

What everyone should know is that property taxes will increase with the proposed 2013-2015 budget. Property taxes to pay for voucher expansion increased in both Milwaukee and Racine as a result of their programs. With the arrival of vouchers, Racine raised property taxes 3.44% because of the lost state aid. Green Bay estimates that if it has 200 voucher students, property taxes will increase by $1.2 million, and if it has 500 voucher students, the increase will be $3.1 million.

The Madison Metropolitan School District is in the process of estimating the property tax impact if the voucher program is approved as part of the proposed budget. One of the major objections to decreasing state aid for local school districts is that among the 424 school districts across the state, 49 had lower revenues in 2013 than in 2003. In his proposed state budget, Governor Walker asks for a 1.0% increase in school aids for both 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. School aids were reduced in the last two budgets, with an 8.3% cut occurring in 2011-12. If state-mandated revenue limits (the sum of school aid plus property taxes) are not increased, the additional aid must, by law, go to reduce school property taxes.

The governor proposes to freeze school revenue limits for the next two years. To be specific, more than 870,000 students in public schools will see an aid increase of $39 million, while less than 45,000 students in independent charter and voucher schools will see an increase of $117 million.

What do you think about proposals to expand the voucher school system to Madison?

Greg Packnett
Vouchers have been tried in Milwaukee, and they've failed. Voucher schools perform no better overall than schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but they still leach resources away from the public school system. Moreover, voucher schools have an advantage that public schools don't have -- they can be selective about whom they enroll. Over time, this has meant that the students with the greatest needs are often shut out of the program, and have to rely on MPS, but because the district's funding has been directed to voucher schools, it is not able to devote the resources necessary to educate these students. The voucher program has devastated Milwaukee's public school system, and it will do the same to Madison's.

James Howard
Walker's proposal to expand the voucher school system to Madison is part of his funding priorities for Wisconsin schools. It's important to recognize that the governor's funding priorities and expansion of the voucher school system are the same. Vouchers are state tax money used to send students to private schools. Your tax dollars would go to families that already have their kids enrolled in private schools.

The voucher system started in Milwaukee years ago as a way to help kids from the lowest-income families. Since then, it has expanded to families up to 300% of the federal poverty level -- about $70,000 per year for a family of four. Now it has expanded to Racine. Taking money from the state's constitutionally mandated public education system to give to private schools isn't going to strengthen public education. When a voucher program comes to a community, state law requires the school board to pay about 39% of the cost of vouchers.

The three most important points on vouchers are:

  • Vouchers have not proven to increase student achievement compared to public schools.
  • Vouchers, if implemented, will increase local property taxes in any community where they are established.
  • Vouchers will drain resources away from public schools.

We have over 20 years of history with vouchers in Wisconsin. Study after study has shown that students attending private schools on vouchers in Milwaukee do not perform better than students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Studies have shown the same to be true for students who attend private schools on vouchers in Washington, D.C. and Cleveland, Ohio. Vouchers do not provide public accountability required by major federal education laws, including special education. In light of this indisputable evidence, it's an understatement to say I simply oppose voucher schools.

Words cannot express how strongly I oppose the funding priorities in the current 2013-15 state budget that includes voucher schools. If these funding priorities are approved, our education system will continue the decline in quality that started under the Walker administration. Public education cannot continue to absorb cut after cut, year after year.

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