FFRF to Wis. schools: Protest Walker voucher scheme

In response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposed massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher system, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent letters to every superintendent in Wisconsin, urging them to speak out now in support of public funding for public, not private, education.

While some school boards have taken official action against other defunding threats in the budget, “little attention has gone to the severe voucher expansion, which will have a lasting and disastrous impact on public schools,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott to 422 public school superintendents.

Walker’s proposed budget would remove the current 1,000-student cap on statewide vouchers in the Wisconsin Parental Choice program, thereby opening the floodgates and, says FFRF, “pillaging” public schools in favor of religious schools. One hundred percent of private schools currently being funded under Walker’s statewide voucher program are Christian — 73% of them Catholic.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize somebody else’s religion,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “and where public dollars go, public accountability should follow.”

FFRF gave each district superintendent an idea of how many of their students they could lose to voucher schools at taxpayer expense under Walker’s plan. Each district would lose thousands of dollars of school aid per student, which would be transferred to private (mostly religious) schools.

A student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch would typically be eligible for vouchers under Walker’s scheme. Statewide, 42.2% of Wisconsin students would be eligible and in Madison, more than half could go to religious or private schools at taxpayer expense. In some districts, including Lac du Flambeau School District #1, Menominee Indian School District, and Beloit School District, respectively 96%, 86%, and 78% of students could leave, taking corresponding funding with them.

The Madison, Kenosha, and Green Bay school districts could lose the highest actual number of students, each with more than 12,000 students eligible. Appleton, West Allis-West Milwaukee, Beloit, Janesville, and Sheboygan all have over 5,000 students eligible as well.

Even the lower percentages eligible in more well-off school districts could represent a loss of hundreds of students and corresponding funding.

A list of the approximate number of eligible voucher students for each Wisconsin school district is available in PDF form, alphabetical by school district, or in a sortable Excel file.

“Legislators fail to understand that the loss of a student to a voucher school does not mean that school districts will see an equal reduction in costs,” warned Elliott. “It should be obvious that public schools must retain essential staff, provide transportation service, maintain building facilities, and provide an education to students with disabilities.”

The effect on Wisconsin’s public school system would be devastating if even a small percentage of these students left the public schools, taking public aid with them. Private schools are unaccountable to the taxpayers for their many problems, as the current Milwaukee voucher program demonstrates.

“The Milwaukee voucher program also serves as a warning as to what happens when taxpayer money goes to unaccountable private groups,” FFRF’s letters noted. In the last ten years, taxpayers have given $139 million to voucher schools that were subsequently barred from the program for failing to meet requirements related to finances, accreditation, student safety and auditing, according to a Wisconsin State Journal analysis published last year. FFRF has created an FAQ documenting egregious problems with Wisconsin voucher programs and has also compiled an extensive FAQ detailing the general harm of voucher programs.

FFRF urges superintendents “to take a strong stand against vouchers,” saying that Walker’s plan could “destroy our public schools.”

FFRF is a Madison-based national state/church watchdog with more than 22,000 members, including more than 1,300 in Wisconsin.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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