After more than three months of hiatus, the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee met Monday to undertake the K-12 education piece of the biennial budget proposal. For education reform advocates, there was finally something to cheer about, although there is still work left to be done.
The headline will be the per pupil amount spent on K-12 public schools. The Joint Finance Committee agreed to spend $639 million on K-12 education – just about $10 million less than the $648 million proposed by Governor Scott Walker. In practice, this will mean a $200 per pupil increase in the first year and $204 in the second. Once approved, this will be the single largest appropriation ever for K-12 in the history of the Badger State. Our previous research has shown that there is no significant relationship between increased spending on K12 public schools and higher academic outcomes for students.
The plus side of the new spending is that private schools in the choice programs and charter school students – which receive significantly less funding than their public school counterparts – will also receive a per pupil increase of $200 and $204. While far from uniform, the regular increase in per pupil funding for choice and charter students eases the burden on choice and charter schools that often have to raise funds on their own to close those spending gaps.
The most notable achievement is the increase in the income-level for Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) from 185% of the poverty line to 220%. This is an important, albeit incremental, reform that takes the state down the path towards making the three parental choice programs uniform. The Milwaukee and Racine Parental Choice Programs currently have income limits of 300%, which means even with the reform, inequalities in access to vouchers will remain. But for Wisconsin families, this will mean greater access. Previously, a family of four making $45,000 and up were disqualified from the WPCP. With this reform, families of four earning up to $53,000 will now be eligible.
Also worthwhile is the expansion of the charter authorization.
But, education reform advocates will be watching to see what happens to the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP), aka the special needs voucher. Created in 2015, the program serves over 200 families. But red tape and regulations have served to hamper the growth of the program. If the SNSP is to grow and become an effective option for Wisconsin families, a repeal of regulations requiring previous enrollment in public schools and an attempt at open enrollment, along with an increase in funding is absolutely necessary. According to WisPolitics, JFC will vote on it on September 5th.