Voucher schools are an ongoing point of contention in Wisconsin’s divided government, with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers even promising to tighten or end the decades-old program.
The system, which uses taxpayer money to send low-income students to private schools, has been tweaked and debated but ultimately expanded under Republican control in recent years.
In recent comments, one Democratic lawmaker claimed it has grown into a program with a 10-figure tax impact.
“The only thing voucher schools have done for low-income kids is increase their parents’ property taxes. That’s it,” said state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, during a May 23, 2019, session of the Joint Committee on Finance, the Legislature’s budget-writing body.
She went on to say: “They have failed to increase academic performance of low-income kids or graduation rates of low-income kids, but they’ve increased property taxes. You know how much by? Since 2011, and this is from the (Legislative) Fiscal Bureau — $1 billion.”
We’ll leave the performance arguments for another day and focus on the price tag.
Has the voucher program, also known as school choice, really raised property taxes by $1 billion?
Though the voucher program is often referred to as a single entity, it is actually four different programs.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the first and largest, launched in 1990. The Racine Parental Choice Program started in 2011, the statewide Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in 2013 and the statewide Special Needs Scholarship Program in 2016.
The programs allow parents to send their children to private schools with a taxpayer-funded voucher. Families must meet certain income limits (though those don’t apply for the special needs program) to qualify for vouchers and must reapply every year.
The programs had a combined enrollment of about 40,000 students in 2018-19, with about 75% of those in Milwaukee.
The state could fund the voucher program by simply paying the vouchers from the state’s general fund — the Racine and statewide programs used to work like this — but instead it is now done through a complex exchange of funds.
The mechanics vary between programs, but generally it works like this:
When a student enrolls in a voucher school, the state pays the amount of that voucher — roughly $8,000 per student — to the school and reduces the state aid to the public school district where the student lives by the same amount.
The state then increases the amount the district can levy in property taxes by the same amount to make up for the lost voucher funds.
The system helps restore district funding levels since losing a smattering of students at different levels doesn’t typically result in lower costs for the district. That is, a district can’t get rid of a grade-level classroom or drop a teacher who teaches a particular subject just because two students in one grade and one in another move to a voucher school.
The district isn’t required to raise taxes; it could make up the money by cutting elsewhere.
But since 2011, the period cited by Taylor, there was just one year where Racine or Milwaukee didn’t increase the property-tax levy to that maximum, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, also noted districts are motivated to levy to this maximum since this is a “use it or lose it” system. Districts that don’t tax to that full amount in a given year can’t return to that levy amount in the future.
The state is in the process of changing this system for Milwaukee.
Taxpayers support traditional K-12 school districts with many taxes, including property, sales, income (state and federal) and fees. Voucher schools make do with much less, per student.