Jim Bender Talks About Proposed Voucher Expansion

Home » Here and Now » All Episodes » Jim Bender Talks About Proposed Voucher Expansion

Jim Bender Talks About Proposed Voucher Expansion

Premiere Date: 
June 6, 2013

Jim Bender speaks on the proposed statewide voucher school expansion in the budget.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

As we've discussed, one major piece of the budget coming out of Joint Finance was the statewide expansion of school choice. Now, this was a change from the governor's proposal, which would have expanded it beyond Milwaukee and Racine only to districts with more than 4,000 students that also had two poorly-performing schools. That was expected to be nine districts. Instead, the compromise version takes the voucher program to any district in Wisconsin. Students would be eligible for state-paid private school attendance with family incomes less than 185% of the poverty level, or $43,000 for a family of four. The voucher dollar amount is set at $7,210 for grades K through 8 and $7,856 for high school. There would be caps on enrollment. 500 students for the next school year and 1,000 students in 2014-'15 and no more than 1% of students in a district could go to a private voucher school. Also, to accept voucher students, schools would have to have been in operation since May of 2013. Additionally, new school districts in the statewide expansion would not have to pay a portion of the private school voucher amount out of the state aid they receive. Plus, one big item added in a separate motion, $30 million in tax deductions for families who send their children to private schools. A $4,000 deduction for elementary students, $10,000 for high schools. So do the parental choice advocates like the provisions that passed the legislature’s budget committee? We turn to Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. Thanks a lot for being here.

Jim Bender:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

So what is your reaction to the compromise version that came out of Joint Finance. Do you like it?

Jim Bender:

Well, it's a compromise. So as in any compromise, there are certainly things that we like and there are certainly things that probably fell a little bit short of where we clearly wanted to go. But I think as a package overall, for us, we're looking at some very positive steps that will give parents many more options in the state of Wisconsin. We think the more options the parents have, the better. So at the end of the day, we've made some significant gains, and we'll continue to work on the things that maybe didn't get quite as far along the path as we would have liked.

Frederica Freyberg:

How tough was it to come to this compromise?

Jim Bender:

Well, it's complicated. I mean, as you mentioned before, there was a pretty complicated system by which students and districts would become eligible, and funding mechanisms and everything else. And as hard as it may seem, there are times when you've got months of discussion and months of discussion, and literally in a matter of days and hours the pieces fall together into place. And all of the sudden there it is, and here we are.

Frederica Freyberg:

Critics are saying that this statewide expansion, with its current enrollment caps, is like the nose under the tent. That these caps will explode maybe as soon as the next budget cycle, and it could make the way for a voucher in every backpack, costing as much as, Tony Evers says, a billion dollars. How do you see this going forward?

Jim Bender:

It will be determined almost exclusively by what parents want. If in the next two years you see a large number of parents turn out that want to take advantage of this program, that because they think it will give them an opportunity that's better for their children, legislators will react to that. They won't react to anything else besides what's happening in their own districts. And that's probably the biggest change now, is that in the past you've had a very small number of legislators that actually had the program in their district. Now you will have an opportunity for legislators, senators and representatives to see upfront and close what's happening. So if the program gets out there and there isn't demand and people don't want to get into it, then I would imagine the caps wouldn't move very much. On the flip side, if the program gets started and legislators hear from their constituents that this is something that we want, it is going to improve education in our districts, I think the legislators and senators will respond accordingly.

Frederica Freyberg:

It's almost like they get to try it on in their districts.

Jim Bender:

That's typically the way it's happened. I think that's what happened in Racine as well. They had, you know, caps the first two years. And then, at this point, you're seeing a very large demand for the program. That, you know,  may happen in other parts of the state. We happen to think that it will. But that's what legislators will have to decide as they move forward.

Frederica Freyberg:

But at the same time the kind of deep pocket choice advocates are decrying these caps and the deletion of the special needs vouchers. Did this compromise version fail those supporters?

Jim Bender:

I think if you look at some of the other states that have just enacted statewide programs, you had some fairly substantial-- Indiana will be one, where the caps-- While they had caps on the program, they were in the thousands in the first year, like 4,500 kids and then 9,000, so they were very robust programs. I would-- You know, those states had different political dynamics. We had a compromise situation here where, granted they were all in the same party, but you still had people that were adamantly opposed. A few months ago expansion looked unlikely and increase of the voucher amount looked very small. Where we ended up today was certainly an improvement from there. In comparison to what some other states have done recently, however, the caps are very small. But, again, we'll have a process going where parents will now have at least a voice in the process where they can hopefully influence that.

Frederica Freyberg:

We really only have about 20 seconds left, but for his part the superintendent of public instruction, Tony Evers, calls this expansion “reckless and academically unproven.” Quick reaction to that?

Jim Bender:

Well, as the education establishment often does, they omit what parents want in the equation, and they're looking for other standards by which they can apply what they want to see happen, which is to retain control and retain power over education. We think that the parents should have that option. And they just seem to conveniently forget, what do parents want to see happen in the state? I think we need to have more of a conversation about what parents want in the state as opposed to what the education establishment wants in the state.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right, Jim Bender, thanks very much.

Jim Bender:

Thank you. 


We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your comment or story suggestion.

Get to know the Here and Now crew.

Find information on elections and candidates and connect to coverage from Wisconsin Public Television and Radio.