Waukesha School Choice Rally (copy)

Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a rally in support of expanding the state's voucher program for private schools at La Casa de Esperanza in Waukesha in this May 2013 file photo. 

PHOTO BY JOHN HART/STATE JOURNAL

An expansive 29-page education proposal that passed the Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee early Wednesday morning would fill in cuts proposed by Gov. Scott Walker while expanding the private school voucher program. 

Republicans, who backed the proposal, say it invests in K-12 education. But Democrats say it does more harm than good and doesn't truly make public school funding whole. 

Under the proposal, which was released hours before the committee voted, public schools would retain the $127 million cut proposed in the governor's budget for the 2015-16 school year. The following year, they would receive about $70 million more than Walker proposed.

The proposal also allows a statewide expansion of the voucher school program. Initially, participation would be capped at 1 percent of the students in each district, but in 11 years the limit would be lifted. 

The expansion would be modeled after the state's open enrollment system, with tax money following the student. It 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 plan could cost public schools about $48 million over the next two years, according to a memo prepared for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau last week. Schools would not be allowed to levy taxes to replace lost state aid.

"Republicans continue to mislead the people of Wisconsin by claiming they have made schools ‘whole’ while they are only funding one element of our school formula and draining public schools of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars they are giving to private schools," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, in a statement. "The Republican end goal to allow unlimited taxpayer dollars to go to private schools signals the end of public education as we know it in this state."

Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now said the Republican proposal "looks a lot like money laundering."

"Legislative Republicans are literally proposing to launder money for private voucher schools through our public schools with their latest scheme," said OWN executive director Scot Ross in a statement. "What else can you call a plan that gives K-12 public schools a small bump in aid that is then taken away to give to private schools through the voucher program?"

But Republicans on the committee said funding K-12 education was their number one priority.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said public education has been his top priority throughout the budget process. He said in a statement that the Republican plan invests in public schools while remaining fiscally responsible.

"We don't want the schools to suffer," JFC co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters before the vote. "What we want to do is have the strongest education system we can for every child."

The Republican proposal also creates a special needs voucher program for students with disabilities. Disability rights advocates say such a program would take away resources from public schools and funnel them to private 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 who are "trapped" in schools that aren't working for them.

“These children and families are trapped," said Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, in a statement. "Their public school has failed them, and their chance of open enrollment has been taken away. We are giving families hope that their children can finally get the education they deserve."

Also included in the 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. 

Under the motion, a parallel provision would allow a similar program to be created for districts that meet certain requirements, including enrolling more than 15,000 students. That means the Madison and Racine districts could be put under the same plan if they were to meet the program's other requirements.

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Other provisions in the measure would change high school graduation requirements. Students would have to pass a civics test similar to the one given to applicants for U.S. citizenship in order to graduate high school, starting in the 2016-17 school year. Students could also earn up to half of their credits by "demonstrating competency" or "creating a learning portfolio."

The proposal would also allow the Department of Public Instruction to grant teaching licenses to people with a certain amount of work experience and teacher training who wish to teach technical courses. They would not be required to hold a bachelor's degree. 

Teaching licenses for those who wish to teach English, social studies, math or science could be granted to anyone with a bachelor's degree who demonstrates proficiency and has relevant experience in the subject.

The motion also sets aside $10,000 for 2015-16 to fund a contract with a vendor to set up a "digital textbook marketplace and resource center." The materials would be required to work on major operating systems and devices, and districts could license the content at different rates based on the length of time.

Wisconsin Education Association Council president Betsy Kipper said the budget offers the "worst of the worst" for public schools.

"At the same time they’re at the front door of the schoolhouse boasting that they’re putting money inside, they’re sneaking money out the back door to subsidize private schools," Kippers said in a statement.

Christopher Kulow, government relations specialist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the education package is a "mixed bag" for public schools in Wisconsin.

He praised the decision to restore Walker's cuts, but said several policy items in the motion could be "detrimental to public schools."

"In the end, this budget will likely see Wisconsin fall below the national average for per pupil funding for the first time ever," Kulow said in a statement. "This is a truly disappointing trend for Wisconsin at a time when the vast majority of other states are increasing funding for public schools by 4 to 4.5 percent per year. We are hopeful that the Senate and Assembly take a second look when the budget reaches the houses for their consideration."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.