Notes on funding school choice

Ameillia Wedward:

Janet Protasiewicz’ recent confirmation as a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this month has conservatives worried about the possible end of a decade of conservative reforms, from Act 10 to voter ID laws. But another concern receiving less attention is the prospect of challenges to Wisconsin’s school choice programs.

School choice has stood against challenges in the past, but now that it’s at stake in state court, taxpayer dollars are on the line.

While there are several cases and laws that reaffirm Wisconsin’s choice programs from a religious angle — and Wisconsin’s own governor signed into law increases to choice earlier this summer — the current concern is that school choice will face scrutiny from a financial standpoint: Can the state fund both school choice and public schools simultaneously?

Currently, under the Wisconsin constitution, local funds must be used for local schools. Although the state finances the choice program, when a student leaves the public school system to participate, the state subtracts that pupil’s funding from their respective district, which then has to make up the revenue loss by increasing property taxes. In other words, to fund both systems, taxpayers end up paying twice: once to fund the school choice program and again to pay the district’s tax hikes.

Some have argued that this violates the state constitutional requirement that property taxes fund “common schools.” But concerns like this ignore a plausible funding mechanism that could appease school choice and public school advocates alike while sparing the taxpayer’s wallet. By decoupling private choice funding from property taxes and funding students instead, the state could reduce costs for local taxpayers. Under a decoupling plan, students that use school choice would be financed fully by the state, and all property tax implications would be removed.

This isn’t a new idea. By the 2024-25 school year, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program will be funded directly via the state. By the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s conservative estimations — before the new law and under the old voucher amount — if the state followed the same model, decoupling would cut property taxes over $168 million statewide.

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