Joint Finance Committee delays taking up school voucher expansion

MADISON (WITI) -- The contentious issue of school voucher expansion will have to wait, as lawmakers work to hammer out a compromise with just one week to go before the budget needs to be finished.

"Let's Make a Deal" is the name of the game at the state Capitol when it comes to expanding Wisconsin's school voucher system.

The issue originally scheduled for action on Wednesday, May 29th has been delayed.

The Joint Finance Committee, the state Legislature's budget writing committee dealt with issue after issue on Wednesday, but the school voucher program was not on that list.

Expanding the school voucher program would give public money to families to help pay for private school educations. It is an issue so contentious that it has split not only Democrats and Republicans, but has also opened divisions within the Republican Party.

"It shows how divided the Republican caucus is on this.  Now that the vouchers are looking to expand to other parts of the state, some of these senators are worried about the impact it's going to have on their kids and their school districts, so they're starting to fight back. It's a matter of who's going to win now -- the kids or the special interests," Sen. Chris Larson (D - Milwaukee) said.

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed expanding the program from its current locations in Milwaukee and Racine to any district in the state that has two or more failing schools.

"What we really wanted was an option that opened the door for low-income families to send their son or daughter to an alternative they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford," Gov. Walker said.

Now, state lawmakers are working behind the scenes to come up with a deal by next week, when the Joint Finance Committee is set to finish its work.

"It is a contentious issue," Sen. Mike Ellis (R - Neenah) said.

Sen. Ellis is the key player in negotiations. Last week, he said: "Gov. Walker is wrong."

This week, after a round of meetings with Gov. Walker, Sen. Ellis said: "I think (Gov. Walker) is getting righter. The closer we get, the righter we both get."

"Mike and I have worked together for a long time, and I think you're going to see a win-win opportunity here for Sen. Ellis and myself, but more importantly for the taxpayers, the parents and the students," Gov. Walker said.

If lawmakers are not able to find a compromise on this contentious issue in time for the budget vote, it is possible that voucher expansion could come back as a separate bill.