Lawmakers say deal reached to expand school voucher system

MADISON (WITI) -- Key state lawmakers say a deal has been reached to expand the school voucher system in Wisconsin -- but school choice supporters say the compromise deal is so watered down, it's almost worthless.

It has been a busy few days at the state Capitol, as key senators worked to hammer out framework on school vouchers, and now, it appears they have reached a deal.

Sen. Luther Olson (R - Ripon) is the chairman of the Senate's Education Committee. He says a handful of lawmakers have been meeting with Gov. Walker behind closed doors.

"The majority leader in the Senate, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the Assembly were all party to this," Sen. Olson said.

Now, he says they've all worked out a deal that would expand school vouchers statewide, but drastically scale back Gov. Walker's original proposal.

"I've now had four meetings with the governor this week," Senate President Mike Ellis (R - Neenah) said.

Sen. Ellis was the chief critic of Gov. Walker's original plan.

"I know I can't get everything I want and the governor knows he can't either," Sen. Ellis said.

"I figured I wouldn't get exactly what I asked for in the form that I asked for, but I wanted to have more money for public schools, more money for choice schools, and I wanted to have more choices," Gov. Walker said.

Sen. Ellis wants public schools to be the top priority, and he says the new deal includes per pupil funding increases for public school students.

"We've been pushing to get $150 the first year and then a new $150," Sen. Ellis said.

Gov. Walker had originally sought to expand vouchers to nine districts. The new deal expands vouchers to any district, but places hard limits on the number of students: 500 in the first year and 1,000 in the second.

"Everything starts out small, and if they can prove it should grow, it can grow. If not, it's not going to grow," Sen. Olson said.

Right now, voucher students receive $6,500 from the state. Gov. Walker had wanted that number to be $7,800. The new deal number is $7,000.

"Right now it's $7,000. It's a work in progress, because they're looking at should the high schools get a little more, the elementary students get a little less, working out the details," Sen. Olson said.

Democrats, who by-and-large oppose vouchers, still remained skeptical.

"It's better than the original proposal, but the devil's in the details. This is still big government dictating to local government.  These are decisions that should be made by local school boards," Sen. Bob Wirch (D - Pleasant Prairie) said.

Lawmakers will spend the next few days working out the details before the Joint Finance Committee takes action on Tuesday.