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Badger State Bellwether? If Purple Wisconsin Goes Red, Expect School Voucher Boom

The nation’s first private-school choice program could become universal if Republican Tim Michels bests incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Tim Michels (Getty Images)

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Like many states, Wisconsin is awash in the newly charged politics over teaching about race and LGBTQ student rights. But the issues at the heart of what has become the most expensive gubernatorial race in the country are decidedly old school. A Democratic incumbent with long ties to traditional public education faces a GOP challenger who promises a dramatic expansion of the state’s private school voucher program, the oldest in the country. 

As of late September, some $55 million had been spent on advertising, with the race between Democrat Tony Evers and Republican Tim Michels a toss-up. 

If Evers wins, residents can expect him to continue to push for more funding for the state’s traditional schools — and for the Republican-dominated legislature to push back. Those same lawmakers have already signaled support for Michels’ marquee proposal — making vouchers available to all Wisconsin students — even as it is unclear how they would pay for it. 

This is not the first election in the state where education politics top the agenda. Within weeks of taking office in 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed legislation sharply curtailing public-sector unions’ collective bargaining ability. The law also reduced state aid to schools over the following two years by nearly $1 billion. Particularly hard hit were Milwaukee, Racine and Green Bay, which laid off teachers and froze hiring. 

In 2018, following three terms as Wisconsin’s elected superintendent of public education, Evers narrowly beat Walker for the governor seat. Republican lawmakers have since rejected his requests for more money for schools. In 2021, they approved $128 million in new state funding — less than 10% of the $1.6 billion Evers wanted.

But GOP legislators don’t have enough votes to override his vetoes.  

Backed by Donald Trump, Michels is vice president of his family’s construction and energy company. He has campaigned on promises of unrestricted school choice and says he will endorse Trump if the former president runs in 2024. 

Like other Republicans, Michels favors giving parents the power to “reject such indoctrination” as critical race theory — a graduate-level academic framework not used in K-12 schools — by removing their children from public schools. To facilitate that, he proposes eliminating income eligibility requirements for vouchers, which historically have given state dollars to low-income families and students with disabilities to cover or subsidize private school tuition. 

With the governorship in play, in September a coalition of conservative and business groups formed the Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom to promote a host of education policies during the next legislative session. The coalition includes Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, American Federation for Children, School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and K12/Stride, a for-profit operator of online schools. 

Walker, who has endorsed Michels, sits on the board of the American Federation for Children, which has spent some $8 million to influence Wisconsin elections since 2010. A year ago, former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, one of the federation’s founders, visited Milwaukee to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the state’s voucher programs

During his two terms in office, Walker expanded voucher eligibility, first to students in Racine and then statewide. Currently 47,000 students use the program, 29,000 of them in Milwaukee. Caps on the number of children who can enroll are set to tick upward until being eliminated entirely in 2026. 

Another 65,000 children attend public schools outside their home districts under an open-enrollment law.

Michels has also talked about augmenting the private-school tuition grants with “backpack” options that would give families state funds to pay for supplemental education services, and expanding the number of charter schools. 

Even if Republicans capture the governorship and retain control of both legislative chambers, efforts to expand the number of vouchers are likely to face some opposition. Wisconsin law allows school districts to raise local taxes to offset state per-pupil funds lost when students enroll elsewhere. When an expansion to universal vouchers was proposed during the 2022 legislative session, the state Department of Public Instruction estimated local property taxes would need to go up by $577 million to pay for universal vouchers.

Critics have also noted that, in contrast to Milwaukee’s program for low-income students, most of the families who got vouchers in Racine and two-thirds of those who signed up statewide had never sent their kids to public schools.

Other issues Michels or Evers can expect to face during the next administration include proposals to require schools in areas with high crime rates to hire armed officers, to dissolve Milwaukee’s traditional district and to boost literacy. 

The state will also need to consider how to respond to a rapid increase in the number of students enrolled in virtual schools, most of them operated by existing districts, which rose to 16,000 in the 2020-21 academic year.

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