Kindergartners at Lighthouse Christian School (copy)

Kindergarten students in Tia Sierra's class gather during a learning activity at Lighthouse Christian School in this 2013 file photo. Private voucher schools, like Lighthouse, could create virtual schools under a Senate Republican budget plan.

JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

The number of independent charter and private virtual schools in Wisconsin could expand under the new state budget proposal put forward by Senate Republicans this week.

The proposed spending plan authorizes a state charter school office to create charter schools statewide without the approval of local school boards. Currently the office is limited to creating the schools in Madison and Milwaukee.

Another proposal would allow private schools participating in the state’s taxpayer-funded voucher programs to create virtual schools using state funds.

In addition, school boards would be able to rescind some increases in revenue from referendums previously approved by voters, and enrollment restrictions for the private school voucher program for students with disabilities would be eliminated under other proposals.

The ideas are part of a plan released by Senate Republicans on Tuesday for the delayed 2017-19 state budget in an effort to break the impasse between Republican leaders who continue to disagree about transportation funding.

Some tax and K-12 issues also remain unresolved, and it’s unclear how the changes proposed by the Senate this week will affect negotiations.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters after a meeting with Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, that his caucus is still reviewing the Senate’s plan.

The Senate’s proposed budget also increases the income threshold for qualifying for a voucher under the statewide program, but not to the level Assembly Republicans want, and limits school referendums.

Under the Senate plan, the Office of Educational Opportunity within the University of Wisconsin System could authorize charter schools statewide.

The office was created in the 2015-17 state budget and is run by Gary Bennett, a former teacher who worked for Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. Darling authored legislation to create the office; the UW Board of Regents approves Bennett’s authorizations.

The office’s first charter school will be one aimed at helping teenagers recover from drug abuse, which was created by legislation passed this year. It will likely open next year.

Two UW System schools and other entities can now create charter schools throughout the state. The Senate budget would let Bennett’s office, any System college and any Technical College District Board authorize charter schools statewide.

The proposal also gives the UW Board of Regents oversight over donations given to Bennett’s office and how they are spent.

Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the UW System, said UW officials “continually look for ways to expand educational opportunities across Wisconsin, and the proposal would empower the (office) to be a part of our statewide (services to) Wisconsin students, families and communities.”

Virtual schools

Also under the Senate plan, $7.2 million in the next state budget would be set aside for private voucher schools that want to create virtual schools. That amount would be offset by a reduction in the amount of state aid sent to school districts in which students attending the virtual schools live, and through a reduction in the amount those districts could raise in property taxes.

All rules that apply to private voucher schools would apply to private virtual schools under the proposal, except how they are funded. Private virtual schools would receive an amount of money matching the amount districts receive when a student open enrolls to that district, which would increase under the Senate Republicans’ plan.

About 1,000 students could attend a private virtual school under the proposal.

Special needs vouchers and referendums

The number of students who could enroll in the voucher program for students with disabilities known as the Special Needs Scholarship Program also could increase under the plan, which lifts enrollment restrictions on who can enter the program.

Senate Republicans propose eliminating the requirement that for a child to be eligible to participate in the program, the student must have applied to attend a school district under the open enrollment program and was denied.

The plan also eliminates the requirement that a child must have been enrolled in a public school in Wisconsin for the entire school year before applying for the program.

Plan authors estimate the program could enroll 250 more students in the 2018-19 school year by eliminating those enrollment rules.

Senate Republicans also propose allowing school boards to reduce their limits on how much revenue they can bring in and spend by adopting a resolution to rescind a portion of any increase to the district’s revenue limit approved by a referendum to pay for school operations.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said his members have concerns over the referendum proposal.

And Tom McCarthy, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, said the department remains opposed to expanding voucher programs or increasing their income limits.

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