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Wisconsin stepping closer to dramatic expansion of school voucher program

The Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee has expanded school choice in the Badger State, increasing the income eligibility threshold in Milwaukee while adding a new voucher program in Racine County.

The American Independent has previously written about the disputes among lawmakers attempting to reform the state’s education system.

The committee rebuffed Gov. Scott Walker’s plan of totally dismantling income restrictions, instead increasing the ceiling from 175 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) for a family of four to 300 percent. Married couples with two children can earn $7,000 beyond that 300 percent. Currently, 175 percent of FPL translates into $39,113 while 300 percent is at $67,050.

Meanwhile, the county of Racine, where polls showed the public supported school choice by a slim margin, will see the program similar to the one in Milwaukee by this fall. Children of families earning 185 percent of the poverty line will receive eligibility, with the number of students who could participate capped at 250. The following year, the income threshold rises to the level equal in Milwaukee and the number of vouchers distributed will go up to 500. By 2013, there will be no limit placed on students of families who meet eligibility.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports there are 20,189 students enrolled through the voucher program in Milwaukee out of 22,500 available. The number of students who could take part in the Milwaukee program will be unlimited under the new terms hammered out by the Joint Finance Committee. Even under current rules families whose incomes are above 175 percent of FPL could keep their kids in the program. Families that previously qualified whose financial fortunes were buoyed were still eligible if income did not surpass 220 percent of FPL.

The paper also reported that Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) said raising the limits runs counter to the Milwaukee program’s original intention of helping low-income children:

“This was a program designed to help those who are disadvantaged, not those who are wealthy,” Grigsby said. “This is nothing but profiting off children.”

In a brief interview with Dr. Howard Fuller, one of the architects of The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which began in 1990, the professor of education at Marquette told TAI he supports loosening the income restrictions. He advocated for a compromise between Gov. Walker’s office and those who wanted to preserve the program’s low-income and working class bona fides. Asked whether the new earnings cap belies the voucher movement’s original intentions, he said, “I don’t know who constitutes middle class anymore. It [serves] low-income and working-class families.”

Fuller explains he decided on the 300 percent threshold after noticing the state’s low and moderate-income health care plan, BadgerCare Plus, covers families up to that same percentage of FPL. While he did not take part in the backroom writing of the bill, he says he received calls from lawmakers and Gov. Walker’s education team.

In Pennsylvania, state senators are trying to pass a voucher program that would eventually set income limits at 350 percent of FPL. Groups hostile to the legislation call that eligibility requirement too high.

Prof. Fuller and the Wisconsin governor have worked together when Walker was county executive of Milwaukee. Fuller tells TAI they’ve been friends for years, but the two have not spoken since Walker took office as governor. He also made it clear he supports neither major political party, calling himself an independent.

The evening budget hearings at the Joint Finance Committee were a raucous affair. About 25 people were escorted out of the chamber by state troopers, writes JS, and details of protestors shouting at Democrats were described as well.

Lawmakers on the committee hope to finalize the full budget by Saturday, with full legislative debate scheduled for June 13. Six GOP state senators are under threat of undergoing recall elections for supporting the Republican governor’s controversial spending cuts and tax breaks.

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