Schools react to voucher expansion, other school changes

MMSD looks at later start times for middle schoolers

State lawmakers made major changes to public school funding and policy early Wednesday morning, and schools are reacting with excitement and concern.

GOP lawmakers in the Capitol put an additional $200 million into school budgets than Gov. Scott Walker originally proposed, keeping school funding flat the first year and adding $100 per pupil the second year.

But they also expanded a statewide voucher program for low-income students, allowing state tax funding to follow a student to the private school of their choice. The number of students would be capped at 1 percent of the public school population.

Lighthouse Christian School, which is the only school participating in the voucher program in Dane County, currently has 10 voucher students. Principal Tia Sierra said she was excited to hear about the changes.

“We have a lot of children that want to be in the voucher program and a lot of students on the waiting list that have been waiting to get into the school,” Sierra said.

She said she believes the voucher expansion will help parents who feel trapped in their current public school.

“My heart is always for the student,” Sierra said. “My goal is that every student in this city would get the education they deserve and the education they need, and sometimes, that means that children don’t succeed in public schools.”

But Madison School Superintendent Jen Cheatham said she’s concerned about the revenue public schools will be losing.

“Obviously, we need as many resources as we possibly can get our hands on, but the instability and knowing what to expect makes it very difficult for a district to plan,” Cheatham said.

Cheatham said she wasn’t worried about a large number of students getting vouchers and leaving the district, but said that voucher increases statewide could hurt funding for all public schools.

The voucher program is only one change lawmakers made in their early morning vote Wednesday.

They also created a five-star rating system for all schools and made a new requirement that high school students pass the civics portion of a citizenship test to graduate. They also said that private or home schooled students could join public school athletic teams or extracurriculars, that some tech, math and science teachers wouldn’t be required to have a college degree to teach, and high school students could get half of their credits to graduate from a “learning portfolio.”

Vouchers, though, may have the most immediate impact, potentially making Lighthouse not the only voucher school in town.

“I would hope that every school would take advantage of this,” Sierra said. “I think private schools have a lot to offer kids that may be struggling in public school.”

While the education changes were approved by the budget committee, they still need approval by both houses of the Legislature and the governor.