The co-chairs of the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Finance Committee said on Tuesday its Republican members have reached an agreement to provide an additional $200 million for K-12 education than what Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his two-year budget.
The funds will restore a $127 million cut next year that was proposed in Walker's budget, and will provide an additional $100 per pupil in state aid the following year.
"It was really a challenge, but it was everybody's first priority, and we made it," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.
Darling and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said Republicans also plan to move forward with a statewide expansion of the voucher program, capped at 1 percent of the students in each district.
The expansion would be modeled after the state's open enrollment system, and would increase the amount of per-pupil aid for taxpayer-funded voucher schools to $7,200 per K-8 student and $7,800 per high school student.
That expansion will change the amount of funds that public schools receive, but Darling and Nygren declined to say by how much it could be.
"We don't want the schools to suffer," Darling said. "What we want to do is have the strongest education system we can for every child."
The proposal also includes a controversial special needs voucher program, which would also be operated similarly to the open enrollment model. Disability rights advocates say such a program would take away resources from public schools and funnel them to schools that do not face the same federal requirements as their public counterparts. Supporters of the plan say the state's voucher program shouldn't leave out special-needs students.
Also included in the GOP plan is a proposal spearheaded by Darling and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, that would allow low-performing public schools in Milwaukee to be turned over to charter or voucher schools. The process would be overseen by the Milwaukee County executive.
The committee postponed its meeting several times on Tuesday before convening shortly after 2 p.m. Other items up for consideration include a proposal to drug test recipients of public benefits and several provisions related to the Department of Corrections.
No new items will be taken up past 10 p.m., per a memorandum of understanding. The education proposals are the last items on the agenda. If there are still items to consider at 10 p.m., the committee will recess and return on Wednesday morning.
Democrats on the committee have their own K-12 proposal and are certain to push back against the one Republicans plan to offer.
The Democrats announced a proposal that would provide more than $450 million for public schools over the biennium. Their plan would increase per-pupil spending by $300, invest $5 million in rural district aid and $20 million in special education, allocate $150 million in additional funding in the first year of the biennium and $165 million in the second year. It would also halt additional tax dollars from going to private voucher schools.
"You cannot fully fund public schools and continue to expand private school vouchers," said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. "It cannot happen."
Taylor said the Republican proposal offers "crumbs" in contrast to theirs.
Neither party's proposal would raise taxes, lawmakers said.
"For Republicans to just restore the cut that Gov. Walker is planning for K-12 education doesn't make them a hero," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. "We need to do more, and are in a position to do more without raising the taxes, if this is a priority of the Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature and the co-chairs of Finance. The money is there."