The Assembly Committee on Education heard opposing testimonies Tuesday regarding two bills that would expand the K-12 voucher school program in the city of Milwaukee.
Currently, schools participating in the voucher program – which allows parents and guardians to send their children to a private school with state funds – must be located within Milwaukee city limits.
The proposals would allow private schools within all of Milwaukee County to participate in the voucher program and would also eliminate the program’s 22,500 total student enrollment cap, respectively.
A majority of the testimony came from members of the public, including teachers, parents and taxpayers from the Milwaukee Public School District, who said they were opposed to expanding voucher eligibility to schools outside the city of Milwaukee.
MPS Legislative Policy Manager Chris Thiel told members of the committee expanding the voucher school program would hurt taxpayers.
“What the program does is hold [Milwaukee Public School] kids hostage, because it revokes that money,” Thiel said. “It expects [Milwaukee Public School] property tax payers to pay the ransom. And if they don’t, the students get hurt.”
Opponents of the proposals often laughed and scoffed when bill supporters testified with reports that said the cost of educating a Milwaukee Public School student averaged more than $15,000 and the teachers in the system make an average of more than $100,000 per year including benefits.
Thiel said the argument that voucher schools were cheaper than traditional public schools was flawed and encouraged the debate between the two modes of education to be based on more honest statistics.
Representatives from schools participating in the voucher program testified in support of the bill citing studies showing enhanced student performance and graduation rates.
Terry Brown, president of St. Anthony School of Milwaukee, a voucher school, supported both bill proposals and told the committee his school was outperforming MPS in academics. He said the bills would provide his school with resources it needs.
“Every single one of the provisions that are included within this bill would put more money into the classroom,” Brown said.
He added the bills would also reduce the amount of paperwork required to admit a student.
But after committee members discovered Brown’s school’s population was made up of 98 percent voucher school students, Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, said a school with that many voucher students should be considered a public school because the state is essentially funding a majority of its student population.
She questioned whether a provision existed in the current legislation limiting the percentage of voucher participating students a private school could carry.
Other committee Democrats questioned both bills and the voucher program throughout the public hearing.
“I have seen nothing from the voucher program that convinces me [the voucher program] does any better than [Milwaukee Public Schools],” Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, said. “My fear is that it is the path to privatizing education in Wisconsin.”
The committee also planned to hear testimony for a bill that would make the use of education agency equipment for pornographic activities grounds for license revocation by the DPI. But seven hours and 40 minutes after the hearing began, that legislation had not yet been addressed.