Lighthouse Christian

Lighthouse Christian School student Samuel Delgado walks a hallway during a break in classes. The small private school in Madison accepts taxpayer-funded vouchers from some students for tuition.

JOHN HART — State Journal

Up to $800 million could be spent over the next 10 years to expand the taxpayer-funded statewide school voucher program as proposed by GOP lawmakers, according to a new legislative memo.

The statewide voucher program is currently capped at 1,000 students and would cost about $75 million over the same time period if it is not expanded. The Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee last week approved language for the 2015-17 spending plan that would lift the cap gradually over the next 10 years.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, drafted for Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and released Thursday, said the actual cost of the statewide voucher program over the next 10 years will depend on how many new students join the program. About 3,000 students could participate in the statewide voucher system by the 2016-17 school year, the memo said.

The fiscal bureau cost estimate factors in the number of students currently attending private schools, the number of those students with a family income of below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and how the Milwaukee voucher system expanded over 10 years.

Overall, roughly $4.5 billion annually is devoted to general school funding in the proposed state budget. The cost for new students in the program over the next two years is projected to be about $37 million. In the last state budget, about $384 million was appropriated for the state’s three voucher systems.

Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, said the proposed state budget further harms already financially struggling public school districts. Barca characterized the estimated cost as funds “stolen” from public schools and diverted to the “private voucher school experiment.”

“We simply cannot afford to build two parallel school systems in this state,” said Barca.

Jim Bender, president of voucher lobbying group School Choice Wisconsin, said he could not respond to the memo because it was speculative. He added the memo was created to grab headlines. “Without seeing how they came up with the calculation, it’s very difficult to respond to,” he said.

The Joint Finance Committee last week also approved budget language that changes the way the voucher system is funded. School districts would see reductions in their state aid by each new student living in the district that attended a private school with a voucher beginning in the 2015-16 school year.

Students attending private schools with taxpayer vouchers would now be counted in the district’s funding formula, too.

Currently, the vouchers are paid with general purpose revenue only.

Under the changes, school districts would lose $7,210 in aid for each K-8 student and $7,856 for high school students. Districts could not raise taxes to make up for the reduction.

Since the program was created two years ago, the majority of students receiving vouchers were already attending private schools, which has served as the basis for critics’ arguments against expansion.

Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said in an email that the change in the funding structure for the statewide program is “insidious.”

“It masks the true cost of the voucher program expansion and the harm that expansion will do to public schools by ‘washing’ the dollars through the aid formula for public schools” because lawmakers no longer must appropriate additional state dollars to fund voucher expansion because it comes from school district funding, he said.

Bender took issue with characterizing the expansion as a cost to public schools because funding would follow the students with vouchers.

“These students are part of the funding base already, so it’s no new cost,” he said.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.