Mequon-Thiensville leaders dismayed by proposed voucher expansion

Published on: 6/18/2013

Mequon — Considering it "an assault on public education," Mequon-Thiensville district officials on Monday had a spirited discussion about the proposed statewide expansion of the school voucher program.

While vouchers have long been offered in Milwaukee and Racine, the proposal broached earlier this month by the Joint Finance Committee in Madison would expand the program across Wisconsin if it is enacted.

The voucher program gives low-income students the opportunity to attend private and parochial schools without paying tuition. Advocates say the vouchers give students more choice in communities with under-performing districts.

But Mequon-Thiensville administrators and School Board members did not mince words as they expressed displeasure at their regular monthly meeting this week about the possible statewide expansion. The JFC has been reviewing Gov. Scott Walker's proposed 2013-15 biennium budget.

Superintendent Demond Means said he was particularly dismayed by the JFC's voting on the recommendation to expand the program about 2:30 a.m. June 5 at a time when public comment was neither taken nor practical because of the time of deliberations.

"This is a travesty that needs to be addressed," Means said. "It is one of the single most devastating recommendations to public education that I've seen in my 20 years as an educator."

As part of its recommendation, the Republican JFC in its 12-4 vote proposed the statewide expansion be capped at 500 students in its first year of implementation and 1,000 students in the second year. No more than 1 percent of students within a district would be permitted to participate.

While the numbers are a small fraction of the public education population, Means said he was concerned with the long-term picture.

"This proposal would decimate, over time, public schools," he said.

The JFC has recommended per-pupil funding increase for public schools to $150 per student.

But Means took aim at the committee's recommendation to increase spending to voucher schools by an even greater amount: $768 per student for schools serving students in kindergarten to grade eight and $1,414 for schools serving high school-age students.

Writing letter to legislators

After deliberating extensively on a possible course of action, the board voted unanimously to write a letter to state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and other members of the JFC. Darling represents Mequon and is co-chair of the JFC.

The document, to be written by Means and board member Suzette Urbashich, will express dismay with the overall process taken to pass the recommendation and offer pointed criticism at the lack of public debate.

"I don't think that we're afraid of competition, but this isn't even a level playing field," Urbashich said. "That's where the issue is."

Darling has not spoken publicly about the rationale behind the JFC vote, and an attempt to reach her office Tuesday was not successful.

Mequon-Thiensville officials met with Darling and state Rep. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, a month ago to discuss a number of legislative issues, including the voucher program. Other issues included the mandate not to start the school year before Sept. 1 and per-pupil spending.

The comments aired this week in Mequon-Thiensville have been echoed by leaders in a number of other suburban districts in recent weeks.