GOP support for Walker education budget crumbling

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Senate Republicans won't back Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to expand private school voucher programs or freeze public school spending, GOP leaders told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The dissention within his party over key elements of Walker's budget comes as a blow to the Republican governor less than two weeks after he released a plan intended to serve as the cornerstone of his legislative agenda for the next two years.

Senators remain committed to a voucher school expansion but are working on alternatives to what Walker proposed, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told AP in an interview. He also said there is "no doubt at all" that public schools will be allowed to increase per-pupil spending even though Walker called for a freeze to help keep property taxes in check.

Most Republican senators won't back Walker's voucher plan, his proposal to give charter schools more autonomy or to give vouchers to special needs students, said Senate President Mike Ellis. He said Walker's proposals will need to be "drastically changed."

"They have to be rewritten," Ellis said. "What's there is not going to work. It's got to be redone."

Republicans hold an 18-15 majority in the Senate, and it would only take a couple of them to cause trouble for Walker's proposals. An identical version of the budget must pass both the Senate and the Republican-controlled Assembly.

While Ellis's opposition to voucher expansion and freezing school spending was well-known, broader dissention makes it much more likely that some or all of Walker's education proposals will be changed before the budget is passed in June.

Ellis would not name the senators who were opposed, but he said it was a majority of the caucus.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie issued a statement saying Walker was willing to work with lawmakers on increasing funding for schools as long as it "protects taxpayers."

He didn't address the waning support for the governor's private school voucher plan, which would expand the program to any district that has at least 4,000 students and at least two schools receiving a D or F grade on new state report cards. Under that criteria, the program would expand to nine districts next year: Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee.

"Gov. Walker looks forward to working with the Legislature to ensure students in every zip code have access to a great education," Werwie said. "The governor's budget contains a reasonable and practical plan to provide additional educational opportunities to students who are in a district with two or more failing schools."

Walker would also increase the amount of the voucher at an additional cost of $73 million over the two-year budget.

Ellis has previously said he would like to limit the expansion to low-performing schools and not include entire districts. Walker has said he was willing to work with Ellis on that point.

But Ellis also has called for requiring a local vote before introducing vouchers in a district, something Walker opposes.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos downplayed the dissention in the Senate, saying he'd like to see Walker's plans remain intact and he is confident the state will have more voucher schools in the end.

"Talking about and understanding each other's concerns, that's a normal part of the process," Vos said.

Fitzgerald also stressed that Republicans continue to support expanding vouchers, but there were concerns about relying solely on how schools perform on the new report cards as the trigger for entering the program.

Fitzgerald, Ellis, Vos, Walker's chief of staff and others met on Tuesday to discuss options.

"There's a lot of stuff swirling within these discussions," Fitzgerald said.

Walker's budget plan also sets aside $21 million in grants for special needs students to receive vouchers to attend private schools. A proposal for those special needs vouchers passed the Assembly last session, despite broad opposition from the state Department of Public Instruction, disabilities rights groups, and the state school boards association. It did not pass the Senate.

Opponents argue special education students in private schools are not guaranteed services and surrender certain legal rights afforded under federal law.

Ellis and Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, have proposed a $150 per-student increase in school funding in each of the next two years, which would result in property taxes going up about 10 cents per $1,000 in assessed value each year.

That proposal won praise from the state school boards association and others, but Walker has remained noncommittal.

Fitzgerald said he didn't know whether spending would go up as much as $150 per-student each year, but he said it definitely would increase.

Mary Bell, president of the statewide teachers' union the Wisconsin Education Association Council, praised Ellis and other Republicans who are coming out against voucher expansion and freezing school spending.

"These leaders are stepping up to do the right thing," Bell said in a statement. "Education isn't a partisan issue, it's about what's best for children, families and communities — and that means strengthening neighborhood public schools."


Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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