Tag Archives: voucher schools

DeVos supporters want to lead Wisconsin schools

Wisconsin voters will soon have to decide whether to elect Tony Evers to a third term as superintendent of public instruction, or to replace him with one of two voucher school advocates who support Betsy DeVos, Trump’s controversial Secretary of Education.

There’s a primary election on Feb. 21 and a general election on April 4. The position is non-partisan.

While Evers is a public-school supporter and outspoken critic of expanding voucher schools, his opponents John Humphries and Lowell Holtz both want to see more voucher schools in the state.

DeVos, a billionaire who’s never been inside a public school, also is a champion of voucher schools. As chair of the American Federation for Children, she was a leading advocate of the movement to privatize public education through laws requiring the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition in the form of vouchers and similar programs, according to The Washington Post.

DeVos was highly successful at developing charter schools in her native Michigan. Most of them, however, have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average.

Since 2010, AFC has spent at least $4.5 million on campaigns in Wisconsin to elect Republicans and other school choice advocates, according to the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.

Such leadership by DeVos draws praise from Evers’ challengers.

Holtz, the former superintendent in Beloit and Whitnall, called DeVos’ confirmation a “positive development for the future of America’s children.”

Humphries, a former Dodgeville schools administrator, told AP that DeVos has a “great opportunity to help schools across the nation by reducing regulatory burdens that take the focus from students and teachers.”

Among the regulations that trouble many voucher school supporters are restrictions on religious teachings in public schools. Many would replace the teaching of science and evolution with the teaching of “creationism,” for instance. They would also eliminate sex education and promote their view of homosexuality as a sin and of men as being superior to women.

DeVos belongs to a Calvinist group that believes the wealthy are blessed and the poor are undeserving. Underscoring her purpose in privatizing schools, DeVos told The Gathering, a philanthropic group that promotes fundamentalist Christianity, “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

If either Humphries or Holtz succeeds in replacing Evers, it’s unclear whether they will seek to bring religion into the classroom as DeVos has. In recent years, conservatives have rejected the concept of separation of church and state.

A Humphries or Holtz victory could prove divisive on that issue as well as the voucher school movement in general.

GOP candidates reach out to poor voters but have nothing to offer them

Republican presidential candidates said Saturday their party must do more to convince poor Americans that conservative policy — and not an active federal government — will expand economic opportunity.

But the White House hopefuls, addressing a conservative economic forum in the early voting state of South Carolina, didn’t agree on the details and had nothing new or specific to offer other than their wish that poor people would vote for them.

Moderated by House Speaker Paul Ryan, the event gave a half dozen candidates the chance to champion long-standing conservative ideas about alleviating poverty, such as letting states spend federal money on safety net programs without federal strings. That’s already happening in Wisconsin, where Republicans have started testing food stamp recipients for alcohol and drugs and have created lists of what they can and cannot buy with public assistance.

Ryan also said that spending public money on independent charter schools and providing vouchers for private-school tuition would help the poor, although many such schools are run as for-profits and have lower standards and success rates than public schools. In addition, in many cases vouchers do not cover the entire tuition at good schools and poor people can’t afford to pay the difference, as wealthy and middle-class parents can.

For the past 30 years, conservative Republicans have said that eliminating taxes on corporations and the wealthy would help the poor, but that approach known popularly as “trickle-down” economics, has had the opposite effect. The gap between rich and poor is wider than it’s ever been. In states such as Wisconsin that have provided generous tax cuts to the wealthy, the middle class is shrinking at historically high rates.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bragged that he doubled a key tax credit for low-income workers in his state, but he met opposition from 2016 rival Ben Carson, who countered that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit is a “manipulation” of the tax code.

Carson calls for an across-the-board tax rate, with no deductions or credits for any household or business. He criticized progressive income tax rates — the framework that has endured though decades of Republican and Democratic administration. “That’s called socialism,” he said. “That doesn’t work in America.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pitched his “fair tax,” a single-rate consumption tax to replace all other taxes on wages, investments and inheritance. “It’s a powerful unlocking of the economy,” Huckabee said. However, he said he would allow something similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit to ease the tax burden on low-income households.

Responding to Carson, Christie said he does not necessarily prefer the complications of the existing tax code. “If we were starting from the beginning … we could do things a lot differently,” Christie said. But, “We have to be practical.”

Missing from the lineup Saturday were two leading GOP contenders: businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

During his remarks, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was interrupted multiple times by protesters angry about his immigration policy.

“He has brought fear to our community and we are here to tell him that our community needs to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Yadira Dument of New York, one of several protesters escorted from the forum by police and security guards. As a pair of protesters shouted, Rubio said, “We are going to enforce our immigration laws.”

Rubio was key in a bipartisan effort to overhaul immigration law in the past, but he backed away from the initiative when it failed to pass in 2013. Now, as a presidential candidate in a party whose grassroots voters support deporting Latino immigrants and building a wall on the Mexican border, he’s running away from it.

The conference came as Republicans try to improve their standing among poor Americans, who favored President Barack Obama in 2012, according to surveys of voters leaving the polling station.

Ryan said the old “War on Poverty,” a phalanx of government programs largely from Democratic administrations, “has been a stalemate.” Conservatism, he argued, “can open up a renaissance,” dismantling a system that “isolates the poor.”

He failed to explain, however, what he would do differently that might realistically help the poor.

About one in seven people lives below the federal poverty rate, which in 2014 was measured at about $19,000 per year for a two-parent household with one child, the government says.

The candidates Saturday mostly agreed that traditional welfare discourages work. They also rejected a minimum-wage increase and said the private sector and religious community should take on more responsibility for fighting poverty, but couldn’t say how the former tactic would work or how the latter one would be encouraged.

“Compassion is not measured by how much money you spend in Washington,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush contended. Instead, he said, “It’s acting on your sense of consciousness.” But considering the excesses of Wall Street and corporate America, it seems obvious that a sense of consciousness exists in the most influential sectors, which are overwhelmingly Republican.

Bush has proposed eliminating several federal programs and shifting money to states in the form of block grants to help poor families. He hasn’t explained how this would improve on the current system.

Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said the federal government should empower states, but Christie said Obama “doesn’t trust governors,” Democratic or Republican, to enact locally tailored programs. Perhaps that’s because Republican states have ignored the poor and dismantled programs to help them.

Christie said his party must reach out in ways it hasn’t. “We need to be going into African-American churches … into the Hispanic community,” he said. “We need to go there, show up and campaign in places where we are uncomfortable.”

That last confession, perhaps, was the most genuine thing said on Saturday afternoon.

Another Milwaukee voucher school closes, raising more questions

Just nine days into the school year, a Milwaukee voucher school abruptly shut down, drawing renewed criticism from opponents of efforts to privatize Wisconsin’s K–12 public school system.

Daughters of the Father Christian Academy, 1877 N. 24th Place, says it closed voluntarily, but the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction had cited it for multiple problems and tried to remove it from the state’s Parental Choice Program over the summer. The school maintains a website that still features an enrollment tab.

Elsewhere on the Web, the academy’s enrollment is listed as 240 students. Now those students’ parents are scrambling for a place to enroll their kids.

The DPI did not return phone messages seeking information about the closure.

By most measures, the school appeared doomed from the start. It managed to achieve accreditation, beginning in the 2007–08 school year, despite a number of red flags that Fox 6 news uncovered during an investigation in May. Those included the revelation that school founder Bishop Doris Pinkney had filed for bankruptcy three times since 1995 and did not have a teaching credential. The school’s application was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. 

Fox 6 launched the probe after parents of students at the academy complained the school abruptly ceased providing bus service to students in middle of the last academic year due to financial mismanagement. Pinkney acknowledged to a bankruptcy court that she was earning $132,000 annually.

In 2011, a child care center that Pinkney ran was shuttered for “substantial and repeat violations of licensing rules,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Families and Children.

A study published in January by the Wisconsin State Journal concluded that voucher school closings are common in the state. Eleven schools participating in the voucher program were removed within a year of opening due to poor educational standards — at a $4.1 million cost to taxpayers.

The WSJ article appeared just after Milwaukee’s Travis Technology High School was terminated for failing to meet state requirements during the winter break of the 2014–15 school year.

The shutdown of Daughters of the Father Christian Academy brought the number of terminated voucher schools in the state to 57 since 2003, according to a just-released report by the DPI. Those schools have cost Wisconsin taxpayers $176 million.

News of the academy’s closing came one week after Republican legislators appeared poised to fast-track an expansion of Gov. Scott Walker’s private school voucher program. In the 2015–17 biennial budget, Republicans lifted a cap on the number of voucher schools permitted to operate in the state by 1 percent annually. But on Sept. 4, Republicans introduced a proposal — Senate Bill 250 — that would exempt certain school districts from abiding by that limitation, allowing voucher schools to expand more rapidly.

Special interests

“Rather than selling out Wisconsin students to protect the special interests behind Gov. Walker’s presidential campaign, we need action now to prevent further cases of voucher fraud,” Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a news release issued prior to Walker’s suspension of his campaign.

By special interests, Shilling was referring to the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and other right-wing groups that put the creation of private, for-profit schools at the top of their political agenda. In recent years, wealthy and mostly out-of-state pro-voucher groups and organizations have spent more than $7.5 million on campaign contributions for Walker and Wisconsin Republicans, as well as on pro-voucher advertising and lobbying efforts in the state, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. As the law currently stands, even without taking the potential fiscal impact of SB 250 into consideration, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature is on track to spend $1.2 billion on private schools between 2011 and 2017.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign characterized that expenditure as a 15,600 percent return on the $7.5 million “investment” of voucher school supporters.

Since Republicans took over state government, voucher school funding has risen about 77 percent, while funding for K–12 public schools has increased 11 percent, according to a memo that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau prepared at Schilling’s request.

There were 29,609 students in the voucher program during the last academic school year, according to the DPI. That’s an increase of 26 percent from the the 2011–12 academic year.

Voucher payments are $7,210 for students in K–8 grades and $7,856 for high school students. Those payments represent about $200 million in school voucher funding that would otherwise have gone into the public school system.

“With declining family wages, a shrinking middle class and statewide teacher shortages, we need to stop taking money away from Wisconsin’s children and start investing in quality public schools,” Shilling said.

Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, countered that total spending on voucher schools is less than 5 percent of all money spent on schools in the state. He accused voucher school opponents of not coming forward with new ideas or reforms to improve K–12 education, but rather complaining about funding.

Accountability

In January, state Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, introduced Senate Bill 3, which would set operating and academic standards for voucher schools. Those schools currently operate without the accountability required of public schools.

SB 3 would mandate voucher schools hire licensed teachers, conduct staff background checks, meet state graduation standards and be located in Wisconsin. But the Legislature’s Republican majority has kept the bill bottled up in committees and GOP leadership is unlikely to release it for a vote.

“The recent news reports show a need for taxpayer-funded voucher schools to be held to the same standards as public schools,” Harris Dodd said in a news release. “I introduced Senate Bill 3 because I believe that all children should receive a quality and reliable education. By holding voucher schools accountable, this bill would ensure that students are being taught by qualified, licensed teachers and that precious taxpayer dollars are not being wasted on schools who shut their doors mid-way through the year.

“As a state, we need to improve public oversight, transparency, and student safety in these schools, who are receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer money.”

As he traveled the country campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, Walker touted Wisconsin’s leadership in providing school choice through the voucher program. But the subject did not resonate with the majority of voters. In fact, most polls show voters prefer public schools over voucher schools.

Inherently flawed

Critics contend that voucher schools are inherently flawed. For one thing, 85 percent of Milwaukee’s voucher schools over the past 30 years have been religious schools, which critics say violates the Constitution’s guaranteed separation of church and state. 

Another thing that riles voucher opponents is some schools eligible for vouchers are expensive private institutions whose students’ parents can afford to pay — and in the past were paying — tuition out of their own pockets. Critics charge that those schools are diverting money from underfunded public schools.

“In Wisconsin, approximately 79 percent of the students who received a taxpayer-subsidized voucher in 2013 were already attending private schools,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, wrote in an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This means taxpayer dollars are not being used to advance public education, but instead are being used to subsidize the education of a small number of students already enrolled in private schools at the expense of students in public schools in an attempt to further privatize education.”

An additional problem with voucher schools is many have failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities. In 2013, the federal government wrote the DPI that it must do more to enforce requirements under the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.

The letter from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division contained a warning: “The United States reserves its right to pursue enforcement through other means.”

Voucher supporters claim that private schools provide a superior academic environment for students, particularly students from failing public schools. But data comparing the graduation rates and academic proficiencies of students attending public schools with those in voucher schools are inconsistent at best. It appears that while some voucher schools have outperformed public schools, many others have produced poor results and even turned out to be unreliable scam operations.

While the jury is apparently still out on the effectiveness of voucher schools, they continue to drain public education dollars at a time when the state suffers from a teacher shortage due to Walker’s Act 10. Considered the governor’s signature legislation, Act 10 took away teachers’ rights to bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. In response, thousands of teachers either retired or left the state.

Protests staged by teachers and other public employees over Act 10 resulted in the demonization of the profession by tea party Republicans. That has discouraged college students in Wisconsin from choosing to major in education, which could haunt the state for years to come.

Even Republicans who voted for Walker’s budget called it ‘crap’

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hoped a larger Republican majority in his state’s Legislature would lead to the quick and smooth passage of a budget, a perfect kickoff to his all-but-announced campaign for president.

Instead, the spending plan landed on his desk a week late, after months of intraparty wrangling, bearing the most ‘no’ votes his budgets have ever received from GOP lawmakers, who derided his original $73 billion spending plan as “crap.” It passed the Assembly with only two votes to spare, even after weeks of toning down many of Walker’s proposals and getting rid of some.

However, anti-labor proposals that originated with the Koch-brothers backed American Legislative Exchange Council and measures to boost the fossil-fuel industry by scaling back environmental protections and conservation efforts, were left in tact by GOP lawmakers.

Republicans who voted against the budget cited a variety of concerns with the far-reaching legislation that lays out Walker’s priorities for state funding over the next two years. They said it didn’t spend enough on K-12 schools, would borrow too much for road construction and they objected to repealing a law setting minimum salaries for construction workers on local government projects. Their lukewarm reception isn’t the kind of momentum Walker’s had hoped for heading into the launch of his presidential bid Monday.

Walker will campaign on the facts that the budget includes no sales or income tax increases and property taxes are in line to be lower in 2016 than they were when Walker took office in 2011. He’s also expanding the private school voucher program, a favorite with conservatives, and continuing a tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin System.

But bragging rights for those right-wing issues came at the expense of huge disappointments for his fellow Republicans and, according to Democrats, a giant step backward for the state and its economic future.

Wary lawmakers who didn’t want to cede control jettisoned his much-discussed restructuring of the university system. Deep budget cuts to K-12 schools and the UW System were scaled back, although dramatic cuts remain. The Legislature rejected his call to cut funding for the popular SeniorCare prescription drug program and idea to borrow $220 million to pay for a new Milwaukee Bucks stadium.

Most embarrassingly, a last-minute provision gutting the state’s open records law was quickly stripped following loud bipartisan outcry. Walker refused to acknowledge his part in the proposal, but was identified as a participant by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Walker’s not used to getting so much blow-back from his own party, especially on the budget. In 2011, not a single Republican voted against it. Two years later, one moderate Republican senator, Dale Schultz, and two GOP Assembly members turned it down.

But this year, the flood gates opened, in part because Republicans are holding the party’s largest majority since 1957 in the Assembly, up by four seats from two years ago. The majority in the Senate grew by one.

One Republican senator, Rob Cowles, joined Democrats in voting against the budget, saying it contained too many policy items that weren’t spending-related.

Assembly Republicans were unusually critical of Walker during the months of budget talks, with freshman Rep. Rob Brooks saying in May that, “We may have a crap budget, but we’re going to make it better.”

In the end, 11 voted against the plan Wednesday, meaning it passed the chamber with just two votes to spare 52-46. Brooks was not among them. During debate Wednesday night, he said the Assembly had improved it. “Now, I can go back to my constituents … and say, it’s not a crap budget,” Brooks said.

But there were still signs of discontent.

“I personally think the governor’s budget as delivered was a piece of crap. Not to mince any words, OK?” Republican Rep. Tom Weatherston said candidly during debate. Still, he voted for the budget.

Those who didn’t were silent during debate, though several of the 11 Republicans who voted against it explained themselves later in statements.

Rep. James Edming objected to a late addition that largely repeals the prevailing wage law, which sets minimum salaries for construction workers on government projects. Rep. Scott Krug said the budget “falls short” in school funding, and Rep. Keith Ripp didn’t think the budget did enough to solve the state’s transportation funding problems.

Walker hasn’t spoken since the budget passed early Thursday. He’s expected to sign it and issue vetoes before Monday’s event in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. From there, Walker has campaign stops slated in four early primary states, ending with a weekend blitz in neighboring Iowa.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.


Walker appoints son of right-wing Bradley Foundation president to UW Board of Regents

Gov. Scott Walker has appointed the son of a president of a foundation that supports tea party causes to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. The board oversees the University of Wisconsin system, setting policies and approving budgets, among other vital regulatory duties.

Walker appointed Mike M. Grebe, son of Michael W. Grebe, president and chief executive of the Bradley Foundation, to the board. The foundation is an essential part of Walker’s “brain trust.” It’s poured millions into promoting such right-wing policies as busting unions, expanding voucher schools and eliminating social welfare programs.

In addition to his association with the Bradley Foundation, Grebe also has served as chairman of Walker’s campaign.

Walker also has appointed Jim Troupis, an attorney who often works for the GOP, as a Dane County circuit judge. The governor says Troupis will fill a seat previously held by Judge John C. Albert, who has retired. Troupis will serve until August 2016.

Scott Walker’s voucher plan could cost public schools an additional $48 million

Public school districts could face an additional $48 million hit over the next two years under the voucher program included in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget, according to a new memo from state financial analysts.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo obtained by The Associated Press provides new details about Walker’s proposal to lift the 1,000-student statewide cap on voucher participation and create a program similar to open enrollment.

Under the plan, any public school student could apply for a voucher. Private school students enrolling in kindergarten, first grade or ninth grade would also be eligible.

Similar to open enrollment, students would receive funding from their district of residence to attend a voucher school under the proposal. The memo sets out that voucher students in kindergarten through 8th grade would receive $7,210, and high school students would receive $7,856.

Public school districts currently pay $6,635 for each student who moves via open enrollment to another public district.

More than 3,540 students applied this year to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private and religious schools in the third year of the statewide program, more than triple the enrollment cap of 1,000, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said in a recent report. That number is up 4 percent from last year.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, requested the memo. His spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher supporters say the program gives students in struggling public schools an opportunity to offset the cost of attending a private school.

Jim Bender, president of the group School Choice Wisconsin, said public school districts already pay to have students who move via open enrollment in other public school districts. He said applying additional payments for voucher students wouldn’t add much more to each district’s budget.

“It doesn’t seem to be causing any heartache when students go between public schools,” Bender said.

Opponents, primarily Democrats and public school advocates, say the program isn’t accountable to taxpayers and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education.

Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a statewide teachers union, said the state should support its public schools so students across the state have access to quality education.

“This week it was announced that 86 percent of voucher applicants for next year don’t even go to public school now,” Kippers said in a statement, referring to DPI’s report. “Meanwhile, public school students have fewer teachers and less one-on-one attention.”

The voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990, the first city in the country to offer the taxpayer subsidies to help poor children leave struggling schools. Since 2011, Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have expanded it.

Walker and Republicans created a voucher program in Racine, eliminated enrollment caps there and in Milwaukee and raised income limits to allow middle-class students to participate.

The number of students applying from public schools decreased from 633 last year to 526 this year, a difference of 107.

All applicants in the statewide program, whether they attend public or private schools, must meet income requirements. A single parent with three children can earn up to $44,828 per year. For a married couple with two children, the cutoff is $53,310 annually.

To qualify in Racine, an applicant’s family income must be less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That equates to $71,637 for a family of four.