Cost of Voucher Expansion

Those who follow state politics are likely aware of the
focus on school accountability legislation presented by both the State Assembly
and Senate.  Recently Sheboygan County
Superintendents were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet directly with
Fond du Lac Representative Jeremy Thiesfeldt, the author of the assembly bill.
Personally, I appreciated Representative Thiesfeldt’s willingness to meet with
us even though he is not the representative for our assembly district.
Although I have significant concerns regarding a few key
provisions in Thiesfeldt’s bill (AB1), I was primarily interested in the
rationale for the fast-track timeline of this legislation.  Some discussion had AB1 as a key driver in
private school voucher expansion across Wisconsin, so I appreciated Representative
Thiesfeldt’s candor as he confirmed that expanding vouchers was part of the
rationale behind getting AB1 passed quickly.
There are a variety of perspectives on the appropriateness
of the voucher program, but I would like to narrow the focus to the financial
implications should vouchers increase as proposed in Governor Walker’s budget.  Let me begin by sharing that the Oostburg
School District continues to be one of the lowest spending, highest performing
school districts in Wisconsin.  Our
combination of financial stewardship and student achievement results provide
strong evidence of a very positive return on our community’s investment in
children.  Oostburg has been proactive in
controlling costs, and our model health care partnership with the community of
Oostburg and Oostburg Concrete Products is just one example of how we have been
able to make local decisions which benefit stakeholders.
It is important for our community to know that voucher
expansion comes with significant financial concerns. Public school funding
comes primarily from two sources: state equalization aid and our local tax
levy.  State law places revenue limits on
schools so the total dollars from state aid and local tax levies may not exceed
specific amounts. Almost all school districts in the state operate at their
maximum revenue limit. Oostburg is an exception to that and has operated well
below our revenue limit for many years as we seek ways to operate efficiently
while still ensuring excellent student achievement.  Voucher expansion funds come directly from
state equalization aid.  Without large
amounts of additional state budget funds directed toward equalization aid,
vouchers expansion will mean one of two things: higher local tax levies (to
offset the reduction in state aid available) or significant budget cuts. 
Our most recent community survey clearly indicated support
for funding the Oostburg School District either at our state-imposed revenue
limits or at levels comparable to schools in our
region.  As one of the lowest spending
districts in the state, we have limited options to reduce expenditures without
impacting programs which benefit our students. 
The most recent voucher expansion showed that over 70% of students
receiving vouchers were already enrolled in private schools.  That is an important point to note, primarily
from the perspective that public school costs will not decrease in any
substantial way as a result of voucher expansion.  When a small number of students leave our
district, our costs typically stay static because a few students leaving across
multiple grade levels does not allow us to reduce staff and has a minimal
financial impact in other areas. 
As our state faces a serious budget deficit, I am concerned
about how vouchers will directly impact education funding that has already been
reduced at record levels.  I believe the
Oostburg School District has proven itself as a conservative steward of
community resources, and voucher expansion will negatively impact Oostburg students.  This letter does not address the serious
questions that exist around the academic effectiveness of voucher schools; that
is a topic for another time. I do, however, encourage you to check out a recent
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article
which provides the numbers on both sides of this debate
Our school district respects the solid work being
accomplished on behalf of children at our local private schools.  However, expanding the voucher program has
large financial implications that many communities are not aware of.  I encourage you to contact your local
legislators should you share my concerns regarding the negative impact of
voucher expansion on the Oostburg School District.

Kevin Bruggink