Local Educators: Worst Education Budget in 30 Years

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“This is the worst budget in over 30 years,” the Chippewa Valley Superintendent told me. “Weve had worse spending cuts, but not a wholesale change in policy.”

Educators worry a dramatic increase in public money for private schools will threaten already cash-strapped local schools. The proposed state budget makes statewide a “voucher program” in which students from “failing” public school districts attend private schools with public money.

Private schools do not follow the same accountability measures as public schools. They do not report test scores, follow state curricular standards, nor do they receive the recently required public school report cards.

The Governor proposed a $78 million expansion of vouchers to school districts with at least 4,000 students and at least two schools that are near failing or failing on the school report card.

Critics fear the increased voucher program will drain money away from public schools resources and cause an increase in local property taxes. 

Prior to the last budget, the voucher program, sometimes known as “school choice”, was limited to Milwaukee. Vouchers were said to encourage competition between private and public schools to improve schools serving poor inner city students.

Yet a five-year study audited by the Legislative Audit Bureau found virtually no differences in student performance between private and public Milwaukee schools.

Nevertheless, the last budget expanded the voucher program to Racine.

Marc Duff, Budget Director of the Racine Unified School District, recently told The Capital Times Racine lost $1.6 million because of students lost to the voucher program. State aid lost resulted in a nearly 3 ½ percent increase in property taxes.

I recently attended a legislative forum in Eau Claire sponsored by the Altoona School District. Educators from the Chippewa Valley pleaded with legislators to oppose the expansion of vouchers.

School leaders said its wrong to use the report cards to make high stake decisions about funding schools.

One Superintendent said there were only two days between the release of the first report card and the testing used to complete the second report card.

“How can we possibly understand what the report card means and make any meaningful changes to influence the next report card in two days?” she asked.

Another said, “Please ask questions about the accuracy of the report card.”

So I did. I contacted the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Officials said using the report card for funding decisions has three problems. First, the report card measures student performance, not school performance. If a report card is used to show school performance it should account for differences in poverty; there is a strong relationship between poverty and achievement. This report card does not.

Second, not enough data was included to make the report card accurate. DPI uses a rolling average of three years of data; this report card only measured one year.

Finally, I learned the report card is still evolving. A new assessment tool will replace the current, flawed WKCE test in the 2014-15 school year. In addition, the ACT test will be given every year. College readiness and other uniform measures will be added to the report card.

What was not discussed in the legislative forum was how close we are to seeing the voucher program in western Wisconsin.  The Governors budget expands the voucher program to medium size districts that have two or more failing or near failing schools. Eau Claire, La Crosse and Chippewa Falls all have one failing school and one fairly close (or very close) to failing.

What would expanding vouchers in western Wisconsin mean to our local schools?

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently completed an analysis that provides estimates to answer this question. From calculations based on their analysis I learned that if no new students went from public schools to private schools, and half of the current private school students sought vouchers, the program would cost the Eau Claire school district nearly $2 million in addition to the existing serious deficit.

This is why local officials spent an early Monday morning meeting with Legislators. They knew the change in policy was a serious threat to continuation of a strong public school system.