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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal includes major increases in taxpayer funding to subsidize vouchers for primarily religious schools, the Freedom From Religion Foundation charges.

The governor's budget includes a $73 million increase for voucher schools and a new $21 million program for a statewide "special needs" student voucher system. The special needs voucher program is not supported by any special education group in the state. Under the terms of Walker's plan, the amount of a school voucher would increase by 8.6 percent for K-8 schooling (up to $7,050) and 21.9 percent for high school students (up to $7,856).

The state currently allots an average of $4,899 in general aid per student to public school districts. The new voucher program would extend beyond Milwaukee and Racine into nine school districts: Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee. The expansion would be the largest since vouchers were introduced in Milwaukee in 1990.

"Funding religious and private schools should not be done on the public's dime," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Voucher proponents are trying to chip away at Wisconsin's constitutionally created system of public education. It is alarming that some politicians want taxpayers to increasingly subsidize religious institutions."

In Milwaukee, more than 21,000 of the current 25,000 enrolled voucher students attend religiously affiliated schools. In the newly created Racine program, 10 out of 11 schools are religious. If vouchers are extended, parochial schools stand to gain the bulk of the $94 million budgeted.

Roots to spread

The encroachment of vouchers into nine new school districts, with the potential for others to be added, will provide fertile ground for voucher schemes to grow across the state. Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, who opposes the measures, said, "This is phase one of a wide-open school voucher program for the state."

Caps on enrollment and income limits as part of Wisconsin voucher programs have regularly been broadened. Initially, enrollment will be capped at 500 students in the first year and 1,000 students in the second year. The original voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990 was capped at 1 percent of enrollment, which equaled roughly 1,000 students. The Legislature uncapped enrollment as part of the 2011-13 state budget, which had been set at 22,500 students.

The proposed expansion into Green Bay comes despite strong local opposition in 2011 and 2012 to the possibility of a voucher program there. Walker took action to limit voucher expansion into Green Bay last year, signing into law a bill that prevented vouchers beyond Racine and Milwaukee. The proposal to include Madison schools has also been widely criticized.

No accountability

FFRF has long objected to the lack of public accountability for voucher programs. "Where public money flows, public accountability must follow," Gaylor said.

In an editorial last month, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott highlighted two low performing voucher schools, the Clara Mohammed School and Carter's Christian Academy. In 2011, few students in either school tested proficient in reading or math by state standards.

Both schools have a religious focus, with Clara Mohammad School teaching "a Qur'an-guided journey toward active global citizenship" and Carter's Christian Academy using fundamentalist Christian instruction materials that are "presented from God's point of view."

Despite the low performance on state exams, enrollment at both schools has increased. Elliott said, "Parents will continue to send their students to these schools, whether for religious reasons or because they mistakenly believe school leaders are up to the task of providing a sound education."

Misguided political effort

The $21 million special needs voucher plan is indicative of the motivation behind voucher expansion. Special needs advocates have said private vouchers would take away funding from public school programs and would not provide any assurances that private schools would meet the education needs of students with disabilities, as public schools are mandated to do by federal law.

"Special needs vouchers are a product of calculating politicians and lobbyists who want taxpayer money to flow to parochial schools. It's not coming from concerned parents," said Gaylor.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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