GREEN BAY - After a long night in Madison, the Joint Finance Committee approved expanding private school vouchers across the state.
The budget committee - with a Republican majority - expounded on Gov. Scott Walker's initial budget proposal of limiting the expansion to nine districts, including Green Bay.
Milwaukee and Racine are the only two districts in the state with voucher systems in place; Milwaukee being the nation's oldest running program since 1990.
Area schools, both public and private, are reacting to the expansion of the school voucher program in the budget.
Some public school districts say the vouchers will severely hurt them and the students they serve; others say it's still too early to even comment. But voucher supporters say a statewide program will give parents choices for their children's education.
Walker has been interested in expanding school vouchers in the state since he took office – including in Green Bay. Now, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee has put all districts in the state on the table.
"The reality is, you are diverting taxpayer dollars that typically would go to public school students, to private schools," said Michelle Langenfeld, superintendent of the Green Bay Area Public Schools.
At a news conference Wednesday, Langenfeld and other district leaders say the voucher fight is something they are familiar with. The district claims if 200 district students leave on vouchers, it would cost district taxpayers an additional $2.1 million. However, officials say other area districts could be hurt even more.
Like Ashwaubenon Public Schools.
"This should not be in the budget, it's a policy issue," said Brian Hanes, Ashwaubenon's superintendent.
Hanes says vouchers de-value education as an equalizer of all students.
"If public dollars are utilized, the same accountability should be in place and that should be in place, prior to the program being initiated," explained Hanes.
On Wednesday, Department of Public Instruction State Superintendent Tony Evers released a statement saying, in part:
"Our children are caught in the crossfire of an ideologically driven expansion of school vouchers that is financially reckless and academically unproven."
But as public school officials rail against the decision, Republicans, voucher proponents and some private schools say the expansion gives parents an affordable alternative.
"The goal is to give those kids the greatest opportunity to get a great education that fits their needs," said John Gard, a school voucher advocate and former Republican State Representative, in a phone interview with FOX 11. "For the longest time, people who have been unable to have any meaningful choice have been low income families and, obviously, in a lot of situations minority families."
"I think it's one that will be okay for the public schools so that they don't have to feel threatened by it," said Bob Pauly, president of Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay. "It'll be a nice, gradual introduction to it, just like it happened in Milwaukee."
Again, vouchers would be capped at 500 students statewide in the first year and 1,000 in the next. If passed as is, family of four would need to make less than $45,500 a year.
For perspective, Wisconsin has more than 420 public school districts, with more than 800,000 total students.
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