May 7, 2021

Republicans Support Voucher Expansion State Budget

Republicans Support Voucher Expansion State Budget Featured Image

While lawmakers vow to fully fund private schools, they won’t do the same for public schools.

Excerpt from Wisconsin Examiner (Full Article)

Wisconsin’s expanding private school choice programs are slated for more expansion in the state budget under a Republican plan passed by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. 

Under an adjustment to the base budget that the committee passed, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that the Special Needs Scholarship Program will more than double in size over the next two years, from the current $17 million to more than $40 million.

At the same time, Republicans’ budget proposal reduces per-pupil aid for public school students by $9.4 million, according to the Fiscal Bureau. (One possible justification for that adjustment is a steep decline in public school enrollment over the past year. But school officials say that decline is likely an anomaly, due to the pandemic, and won’t last.)

Private school vouchers are among the handful items in the state budget that are labeled “sum sufficient.” That is, funding is not limited. While there are estimated costs for sum sufficient items in the budget, their costs can exceed those estimates. “Sum sufficient appropriations are not limited and allow an agency to expend whatever amounts are necessary to fund a specific program,” a Fiscal Bureau memo explains. 

“Sum sufficient is the golden ticket if you’re in the business of looking for state funding,” says Joint Finance Committee member Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). By making private school vouchers sum sufficient, the Legislature committed itself to funding an expanding program, no matter the cost. “That policy choice of whether we want to give it more money was already made,” Goyke says.

It’s important to note, Goyke adds, that special education funding for public schools is not sum sufficient. That’s why public schools, which are required by federal law to meet students’ special education needs, are continually dipping into their general operating funds, cutting art, music, sports and other programs to pay for special ed, which is a “sum certain” budget item.

“The pie doesn’t bet any bigger under sum certain,” Goyke explains. “The pie is unlimited under sum sufficient.”

Besides school choice programs, other categories with sum sufficient appropriations include debt service, the operations of the governor’s office, the courts, and the Legislature, and certain entitlement programs, including refundable business and property tax credits.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers tried to make special education funding for public schools a sum sufficient appropriation. Republicans in the Legislature stripped out that provision. They also threw out Evers’ proposal to cap enrollment in the choice and special needs voucher program at 2021-22 levels. (In the last budget, they also stripped out Evers’ proposal to put the cost of private school vouchers on homeowners’ property tax bills).

“In the last month I’ve listened to probably 1,500 people talk about the state budget,” Goyke says, “and 40-50% of them talked about public education. The vast majority brought up special education funding. I don’t think we heard from any school district administrator who didn’t talk about special ed. It has surfaced as the most important part of the school conversation.”

“Adding dollars to special ed is a way to ensure every single district in the state gets the resources they need to pay for all their other programs,” he adds.

Also, Goyke points out, the way special education funding works is based on actual expenditures — schools are reimbursed for expenses they have already incurred. “So it’s a smart place to put money. It’s fact-based,” he says.

As public school advocates seek a commitment from the state to fully fund special education, they often bring up the contrast with the Special Needs Voucher program, which covers 90% of costs for private schools.

“It shows the Legislature is willing sometimes to fund the costs schools need,” says Goyke. “But the majority party has chosen the private school voucher system as the recipient of that.”