Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 2
State doesn't need unlimited voucher program
We have long supported the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provides government tuition subsidies for lower-income children in private schools. Though academically it hasn't improved the quality of education in the city — students, on average, do about as well in the city schools as in the voucher schools — it has given poor families the same choice that wealthier people have: the option of sending their children to a private school instead of the public schools in the city.
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.