My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
The Wisconsin legislature is putting together the next biennial budget to go into effect July 1. As the process works, the Joint Finance Committee puts together a budget and passes it onto both houses of the Legislature. Then the Senate and Assembly pass a budget and, once possible differences are worked out in a conference committee, the budget goes to the governor for his signature and vetoes. If history is any guide, most of the yeoman’s work of political compromise takes place in the JFC.
A lot of political sausage will get made in the next five weeks.
The Republican-led JFC passed a substantial education reform package with significant changes. There are 51 components of the education package, but six of them are worthy of note.
First, the JFC voted to reverse the cut to K-12 education in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal and add an additional $70 million in the second year of the budget. This represents about a $200 million increase in K-12 spending over Walker’s proposal and a $70 million increase over the previous budget. Public school advocates should be lauding the increase, but they are, predictably, decrying it as not enough. If there is anything we have learned over the years it is that the taxpayers can never spend “enough” on public schools for some.
Second, the Department of Public Instruction would be required to grant teaching licenses to those with work experience and teacher training who want to teach technical courses. This is a sensible idea that would allow Wisconsin’s students to learn specific skills from experts who have also been trained to teach those skills. It is a wonder that this is controversial at all, but it is for those who want to protect the establishment.
Third, students would be required to pass a civics test to graduate. The test would be similar to the U.S. citizenship exam given to new Americans. Given that one of the purposes of universal education is to ensure that the citizenry is equipped to exercise its right to self-govern, a rudimentary knowledge of our political system is critical. While a test may not be the best way to address this, it will certainly help.
Fourth, there would be a process to allow low-performing public schools in Milwaukee to be converted to charter or voucher schools overseen by the Milwaukee County executive. This plan attempts to address the worst of the worst Milwaukee public schools that have been failing kids for a generation. It is unclear whether or not it will actually improve education for the kids who attend those schools because it does not specify what changes, if any, should be made. But it does attempt to free the hand of an executive to make substantial changes that he or she deems necessary. The effectiveness will depend on the decisions made by the county executive.
The fifth and sixth items are linked and represent the greatest reform in the package. Under the education reform package passed by the JFC, the statewide school choice program would be vastly expanded by gradually lifting the cap on the number of students participating and by implementing vouchers for students with disabilities.
Under the reform, the enrollment cap in vouchers would be lifted to 1 percent of the student population of each school district in the first year, or from 1,000 students to about 9,000 students. After that, the cap would be increased an additional 1 percent per year until the 10th year, when the cap would be abolished.
The funding of the plan would be modeled after Wisconsin’s long-standing open enrollment system where tax dollars follow the student. With this system, the vouchers would be $7,200 for K-8 students and $7,800 for high school students. Also, the new special needs vouchers would be $12,000, but would only be available after a student was turned down for open enrollment to another public school.
The expansion of the voucher program is the most substantial education reform in the budget and will be of tremendous benefit to families and kids all over Wisconsin. The slow expansion over the course of a decade is worrisome because an anti-education reform Legislature could reverse the expansion, but it is necessary to prevent the ill effects of expanding too rapidly.
While not perfect, the education reform package passed by the JFC is a significant piece of conservative legislation for which Wisconsinites can be proud. The full Legislature and the governor should pass it into law.