But the ideologues in the state Legislature want to go much further; they want to dramatically expand a shadow school system based on the voucher concept for the entire state. The proposal raises all kinds of concerns both for education and for the state budget, as a damning analysis by the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau found recently.
The fiscal bureau reports that sending thousands more students to voucher schools — as could happen under the statewide expansion planned by Republicans — could shift $600 million to $800 million out of public schools over the next 10 years.
Voucher advocates are crying foul, claiming there is no way to know precisely what will happen or the cost of the expansion. One voucher-school advocate countered that it's impossible to forecast the cost of the school choice program expansion over the next decade, because schools cannot predict how many students will participate, and how many seats private schools could offer them.
"I'm a little bit surprised the fiscal bureau put this memo out," said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. "Normally, they don't say, 'We're going to take a purely speculative run and just guess at the numbers.'"
Fair point: Forecasting the number of students who will participate or the number of seats available in private schools is hard to know. But the nonpartisan fiscal bureau didn't conjure those numbers out of thin air. We are comfortable with the bureau's estimates, which predict that about 2,000 new students would participate in the program in 2015-16 and 3,000 in 2016-17.
The money to pay for those students would come from Wisconsin's general purpose fund, which would be backfilled by aid reductions to the students' home districts. The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee has approved an expansion plan with a cap on enrollment increasing each year until it is finally removed about 10 years from now.
Advocates argue that the students already are part of the funding base —the money simply follows them. But it's still a hit to school districts that have to pay for teachers, buildings and other overhead. During its first two years, more than 75 percent of the kids who applied for it were already attending private schools without government help. To argue that there is no cost to taxpayers is disingenuous. There also is the issue of transparency: Private schools are not subject to the same record and data requirements or the same federal requirements as public schools.
Despite its flaws, we don't favor curtailing the Milwaukee voucher program. But we don't think its "success" justifies unlimited expansion statewide. The Legislature would do better to work harder to bolster the public school system and give up on the pipe dream of creating a separate system sitting alongside it.
Wisconsin State Journal, June 3
Override veto if Scott Walker won't pay for roads
The "O'' word is back.
It's about time.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee, said last week he wouldn't rule out an override if Gov. Scott Walker were to veto any possible fee increases in the state budget.
We hope Nygren means it.
Gov. Scott Walker has repeatedly rejected the idea of increasing the gas tax, which hasn't been raised in a decade, or any other reasonable user fees to pay for roads. Instead, like the politicians in Washington, Walker wants to continue excessive borrowing, which is fiscally irresponsible.
Nygren and other top lawmakers should stick to their strong — and conservative — position of paying for big expenses such as roads, rather than pushing unsustainable cost into the future.
That Nygren is even suggesting a veto override is possible is impressive. Wisconsin governors have long viewed any attempts to reverse vetoes as affronts to their authority, and governors go to great lengths to prevent them.
Since 1985, Wisconsin governors have issued 2,400 partial vetoes of state budgets that in total spent more than $600 billion. Not once in the last three decades has the Legislature reversed a governor's nip or tuck to any of those state budgets to change even a penny.
It shows how powerful Wisconsin's governor is, and how weak the Legislature has been.
Wisconsin governors no longer enjoy "Frankenstein" veto power. Voters in 2008 wisely banned governors from stitching together unrelated words and phrases across reams of text in state budgets to unilaterally write law from scratch. But governors can still veto parts of single sentences and reduce dollar figures.
Walker told reporters again Monday that he won't agree to raise the stalled gas tax or relatively small vehicle registration fee to help pay for Wisconsin's increasingly costly transportation system.
Nor will he entertain a state fee based on miles traveled, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has responsibly floated. Unlike the gas tax, such a fee would be sustainable because it wouldn't be based on fuel consumption, which is falling as engines become more efficient.
Walker's answer is to borrow more and more money. In his last state budget, he borrowed $1 billion for transportation needs. Now he wants to borrow $1.3 billion for the next state budget.
Nygren and Co. shouldn't back down. If Walker wants to veto a small and justified transportation fee, the Legislature should override that veto. Projects such as the reconstruction of Verona Road southwest of the Beltline in Madison need money now, not delays that snarl traffic for additional years.
A veto override also would end a 30-year drought of the Legislature asserting itself with a two-thirds vote to buck the governor.
The "O'' word should be spoken more often at the statehouse to encourage better budgeting.
Leader-Telegram, June 4
Challenges need cooperation, not same stale sniping
Wisconsin has challenges that call for a comprehensive strategy to address.
The problems are clear. Northern Wisconsin in particular is on a steady trajectory toward decline. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found that many counties in the northern third of the state are losing population, particularly young people. The average age of Wisconsinites is 38.5, but in 12 of our 18 northernmost counties, the average age is over 45. Nationally, the average age is just under 37.
Also, the loss of another $250 million to the UW System coupled with a second consecutive two-year tuition freeze is exacerbating the decline in state support for our public universities. A graphic published last week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that in 1974, Wisconsin taxpayer support for higher education at $14.73 per $1,000 of personal income. That number is now $4.81 per $1,000 of income.
Another graphic in the Journal Sentinel shows that state support for higher education fell in seven Midwest states from 2003 to 2013, but Wisconsin's 20.3 percent decline is second only to Michigan's 27.1 percent.
The financial pinch at the K-12 level also is well-documented, resulting in many local referendums to exceed state-imposed revenue limits. It does put more control over school spending at the local level, but successful referendums shift more of the burden to local property taxpayers, a number of whom are trying to stretch their retirement savings.
Finally, the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker are wrestling with how to fund the state's transportation needs. Walker is against raising gasoline taxes or vehicle registration fees, while the Legislature is uncomfortable with borrowing more than $1 billion in the next two years to pay for roads, bridges, etc.
One of the major factors in all this is the rising cost of health care, which continues to chew up a greater percentage of the state budget to help needy people get medical care. And even as those costs skyrocket, the medical community says those reimbursements are insufficient to meet their costs, resulting in higher health care charges to everybody else.
The hope was that tax and spending cuts engineered by Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature would put more money in people's pockets who then would spend it to grow jobs and businesses in the private sector, but that growth is less than the Walker administration projected, also contributing to the state's financial squeeze.
These financial problems didn't happen overnight, and they can't be solved easily, regardless of who is in power in Madison or Washington.
But these challenges aren't helped when lawmakers from the two major political parties rarely refer to the other side in anything but derogatory terms.
The two-year state budget will pass soon. After that, what's needed is some of the same urgency we only see in the months before the budget is passed, with all ideas welcome, to help address these serious challenges.
Recent history shows that's not likely. The two sides will retreat to their respective camps, only to re-emerge in another two years to face the same dilemmas.