RACINE — Incoming Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos described an emotional moment going door-to-door in Sturtevant during this year’s campaign season: a parent told him about her son being bullied and unhappy in public school.
“They wanted to try something different, but they could never have afforded to go to a private school without school choice,” said Vos, a Republican state representative from Rochester.
According to Vos, stories like these underpin his longtime dedication to school choice voucher programs, which allow lower-income students to attend participating private schools using state-funded vouchers to pay tuition.
Speaking to The Journal Times’ editorial board Monday, Vos laid out his legislative agenda. Alongside passing a mining bill, examining state regulations and looking at Wisconsin’s tax code, Vos listed educational reform on his main agenda.
In Racine, Vos said, the school choice program implemented in 2011 has proved successful, meeting voucher caps both years prior and allowing unlimited vouchers starting in 2013.
“If there are other parts of the state that have issues where there are parents that are concerned about the quality of their own public schools, I’d like to open the dialogue to say, ‘Should we give them an opportunity to have school choice as well?’” he said in a separate interview Monday.
Jim Bender, President of pro-voucher lobbying group School Choice Wisconsin, said those conversations are already happening, and he’s optimistic about the Legislature’s trajectory.
“Once the (school choice) program expanded to Racine, we were contacted by people from all corners of the state” including Kenosha, Fond du Lac, Green Bay and more, Bender said.
But expanding school choice is unlikely to sit well with groups like the Wisconsin Educators Association Council, where spokesperson Christina Brey said teachers and support staff in her union have long opposed voucher schools.
“It’s a matter of accountability, transparency and local control,” she said.
WEAC does not support voucher schools because they hold teachers to different standards, are “siphoning money away from public schools” and are not accountable to taxpayers because they lack a locally elected school board, according to Brey.
Along with that comes financial accountability, something local critics say was not shown by St. John Fisher Academy, a private high school that educated mostly low-income voucher students, and closed its doors in June 2012 after The Journal Times revealed alleged mismanagement and funding shortages that led teachers to go months without pay.
While Vos said he fully supports efforts to protect taxpayers and students from financially unsound institutions, he doesn’t support “creating an abundance of regulations and rules that would weigh down these schools,” according to a follow-up statement.
“I want entrepreneurs to start new schools and I want people to try different things to see what works for families,” he told the editorial board.
And while Vos praised Racine’s voucher program overall, local educators remain skeptical about the cap lifting.
“We really can’t predict the impact it will have on Racine Unified School District,” said Superintendent Ann Laing. “There are too many unknowns about whether parents will choose private schools.”
Additionally, said Laing, “We don’t know how many private school students will access the system,” because both public and private school students can utilize the vouchers if their family income comes in under the $69,907/year cap.
Laing said she believed the impact on Unified will be seen in the long-term.