Advanced learning

Sen. Alberta Darling is proposing a new kind of school voucher known as an Education Savings Account specifically for children who live in low-income households and are considered to be gifted, or advanced learners. 

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

Advanced learners in low-income households would be eligible for a taxpayer-funded grant for education expenses under a program proposed by three lawmakers this week.

The program is proposed by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee — who back private school vouchers and charter schools.

It would be open to 2,000 families beginning in the 2018-19 school year if the bill passes and is signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

“These scholarships will provide students in families with low incomes the ability to access a wide range of educational opportunities that they may currently not have the resources to participate in,” the lawmakers wrote in a memo seeking support from other lawmakers.

“Who knows how many scientists, engineers, musicians, artists and community leaders we are missing out on because their family can’t afford additional educational opportunities,” Darling said in a statement.

The program would provide $1,000 for each “gifted and talented” student who is already eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, which means the household’s annual income is at or below $45,510 annually for a family of four.

Republican lawmakers have been eyeing what are known as education savings accounts for more than a year.

The accounts for K-12 schools first appeared in 2011 in other states and are popular among conservatives and opposed by Democrats and teachers unions as a new version of a taxpayer-funded school voucher.

The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps lawmakers write model legislation, released model policy language on Education Savings Accounts in 2016. In Wisconsin, the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released a study on the accounts last year. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, called the proposal in 2016 a “back-door scheme” to send more money to private education providers.

Such accounts are in use in at least five states and generally send parents of eligible children — typically students with disabilities or low-income students or those attending schools that don’t meet state education standards — several thousand dollars from the state to pay educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring. In some cases, leftover money can be saved for college.

The Wisconsin proposal, however, is limited to children who are scoring in the top 5 percent of standardized tests or have been identified “by an education official” as being gifted and talented “if a student demonstrates evidence of high-performance capability in intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership or specific academic areas and needs services or activities not ordinarily provided in a regular school program.”

Parents would be able to use the money for education services or expenses authorized by the Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s 422 school districts and federal funding for schools.

Expenses could include tuition and fees, textbooks, payments to a licensed or accredited tutor, payments to purchase a curriculum, tuition and fees for a private online learning program, fees for Advanced Placement exams, private music or art lessons, according to the bill’s analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

Parents or guardians of eligible students must agree to comply with attendance requirements and not accept a payment, refund or rebate from a person who provides a service or product purchased by the scholarship funds.

Funds to be disbursed

for student expenses

Under the plan, each student’s funds would be held in an account administered by DPI, which is directed by the bill to develop a system to disburse the money for the student’s expenses, which includes paying directly for expenses or reimbursing parents for expenses.

The account would be closed when the student graduates from high school, reaches age 21 or is no longer eligible to participate in the program.

Leftover money would go back into the state’s general fund, according to the bill’s analysis. The funds would not be able to be saved for college, according to a spokesman for Darling.

Under the bill, the entire program may be administered by a private, nonprofit group through a contract with DPI.

School boards opposed

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said his members generally oppose such programs because they send public money to private organizations and companies, and see the proposal as expanding the voucher system.

He said because the state’s open enrollment program allows students to take classes in other schools at no charge, and because public schools are required to offer services for gifted and talented students, the program is likely aimed at students in the state’s private voucher programs.

“We see this as a mechanism that will be used to purchase services from private providers because anybody is entitled to use the services at public schools at no charge so why would you need the scholarship money if you could just go for free in a class at a public school?” Rossmiller said.

He said the bill will likely have wide support in the Legislature.

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said the proposal won’t affect funding for public school districts or private voucher schools because the funding would be in addition to what’s already allocated for schools.

“There are amazing children in every corner of Wisconsin. However, we know that many gifted and talented programs have gone away over time. Especially in rural and urban areas, students have limited options to maximize their gifted abilities,” Bender said.

Bender said he could see parents in Madison — where gifted and talented services have been under scrutiny for years — finding attractive options in music, art and other areas. Rossmiller, however, said there likely won’t be a lot of eligible students in the Madison district.

Will Flanders, education research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which advocates for vouchers, said the bill “represents an important recognition that Wisconsin can no longer afford to ignore the needs of its gifted students, especially those that are low-income.”

A spokesman for DPI did not respond to requests for comment.

The state's largest teachers union blasted the proposal.

Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said the bill lacks measures of accountability and does not specify where funding will come from.

"To meet the needs of all students, elected officials should provide stable funding for public schools and include educators in developing solutions instead of fragmented approaches that siphon more from public schools to fund private," Brey said.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect comments from the Wisconsin Education Association Council.