RACINE — We’ve all heard of sales tax, property tax and income tax. But what about a voucher tax?

A “voucher tax” has not been enacted by the state government but that’s what Racine Unified officials are calling a portion of the property tax increase they have planned for 2012-13. District officials say they’re forced to increase taxes because school choice vouchers are sending state money to private schools — money that would have otherwise gone to Unified.

But voucher advocates call Unified’s voucher tax terminology unfair. They say the district is not required to raise taxes and shouldn’t need that money anyway since voucher students don’t attend Unified schools.

Voucher funding

Vouchers take money — and students — away from public schools.

Every time a student takes the voucher option, that removes the student from being counted in formulas that determine school funding, Unified CFO Dave Hazen said. In addition to that, the state withholds about $2,200 from Unified for each voucher used in the Racine area, Hazen said.

State school funding rules allow the district to make that money up in property taxes. Unified officials have chosen to do that, arguing costs can’t be reduced as fast as students leave because kids depart from multiple schools, not just a single classroom where one teacher could be cut.

Some have said Unified should just close schools, as was proposed last winter, but Unified officials have instead turned in part to the “voucher tax.”

The district’s wording doesn’t sit well with Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, a nonprofit that supports voucher program expansion.

“RUSD could have reduced taxes for the students they were not educating,” Bender said. “They chose to levy to the max.”

How it impacts your taxes

For 2012-13, Unified’s interim budget calls for a 4.37 percent property tax levy increase. Of that amount, the budget says 1.37 percent is solely because of vouchers.

“General state aid is estimated to decrease approximately $2.4 million. Of the decrease in state aid $1.12 million is part of the ‘Voucher Tax’ to fund payments to private schools,” the budget reads. The $1.12 million comes from the direct per-voucher reduction of funds; an additional $1.7 million will also disappear from Unified’s budget because of the way the loss of students impacts school funding formulas, according to Unified Budget Manager Marc Duff.

Bender doesn’t deny that vouchers have a cost, but he says they cost less than a traditional public school education. Public funding pays the private school a maximum of $6,442 per voucher student. By comparison, Unified spends about $9,700 per pupil annually, Hazen said.

Bender said that means it costs less in taxes for those students than it would if they still attended a Unified school. A three-year rolling average formula slows the impact on individual tax bills, but does not eliminate it, Bender said.

“Every student in the (voucher) program that you’re levying for is levied at a lower rate than a student in RUSD,” he said.

Voucher opponents argue it’s not fair to compare the expenses at public and private schools though, because public schools educate more special education students and have to comply with more requirements.

Unified officials took their voucher tax language from Milwaukee, the only other Wisconsin city with a voucher program. The voucher tax is not listed on Milwaukee property tax bills but a flier detailing school-related costs, including vouchers, is sent with each tax bill, said Jason Bahr, executive assistant for the City of Milwaukee Treasurer’s Office.

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