MADISON – Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Friday vetoed legislation that would have dramatically overhauled education in Wisconsin by making all children eligible to receive a taxpayer-funded private school voucher, regardless of their household income.
Parents would have been able to sue school districts for violations of a new “parental bill of rights” under another bill Evers vetoed on Friday.
Evers, a former public school educator and state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, rejected the legislation as Republicans hoping to unseat him in seven months make the policy idea central to their campaign against him.
Republican lawmakers passed a number of bills this session that would overhaul K-12 education knowing Evers would veto them. Evers has long opposed expanding the state voucher programs without overhauling how schools are funded in Wisconsin.
GOP lawmakers said Friday Evers was siding with school officials rather than parents in issuing his vetoes.
The bill would have lifted enrollment and income limits in the state’s private school voucher programs, allowing families who are already paying tuition at private schools to start receiving a taxpayer-funded subsidy.
The DPI, which oversees the voucher programs, estimated the plan could have raised property taxes by as much as $577 million for residents living outside of Milwaukee. Voucher advocates characterized the projection as purposefully inflated to deter lawmakers from backing it.
“It is remarkable to me that many supporters of this bill, who commonly express concerns about property taxes when it comes to supporting more than 800,000 public school children in our state, are apparently unfazed by the fiscal impact this bill could have on families due to the way these programs are funded,” Evers said in a veto message.
The legislation was part of a slate of Republican-authored education bills approved by Republicans in the state Legislature earlier this year, which included the dissolution of the state’s largest school district in Milwaukee — a bill Evers also vetoed on Friday.
Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to launch a private-school voucher program for children living in low-income households — in Milwaukee in 1990. Since 2011, Republican lawmakers have expanded the program to include wealthier students and to areas outside of Milwaukee.
Overall, 48,919 students are enrolled in the state’s four voucher programs, including those in Milwaukee and for students with disabilities.
Another 35,876 students attend the same private schools but are paying full tuition — many of which would have been eligible to begin receiving a voucher to subsidize the cost under the bill vetoed Friday.
Overall, about 119,000 students are enrolled in private schools across Wisconsin.
‘Parental Bill of Rights’ bill vetoed
Evers also vetoed a bill Friday that would have created a “Parental Bill of Rights” and allowed parents to sue governmental bodies or officials when these are violated.
Under the bill, parents could sue school staff who use the names and pronouns chosen by their students, if the parents disagree with those names or pronouns.
The bill also allows parents to review curriculum and opt their children out of classes or curriculum based on religion or personal conviction. It also lists rights to determine medical care, view medical records, engage with school boards and several other points — many of which lawmakers have said are already protected by law.
“Unfortunately, this bill is another in a string of legislation aimed not at supporting our parents, our kids, and our schools, and fostering those relationships that improve student outcomes, but at dividing our schools,” Evers said in a veto message.
“Politicians on both sides of the aisle have to stop using our kids as political pawns. I am vetoing this bill in its entirety because I object to sowing division in our schools, which only hurts our kids and learning in our classrooms.”
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said Evers’ veto was tantamount to barring parental input in their children’s education.
“Wisconsin parents must have clear cut rights in our statutes. This bill would do that,” Darling said in a statement. “Governor Evers seems to believe that government should have a bigger say than parents and that is flat out wrong.”
Under the legislation, parents would be allowed to sue school officials if one of the following rights were violated:
- “The right to determine the religion of the child.”
- “The right to determine the type of school or educational setting the child attends.”
- “The right to determine medical care for the child, unless specified otherwise in law or court order.”
- “The right to review instructional materials and outlines used by the child’s school.”
- “The right to request notice of when certain subjects will be taught or discussed in the child’s classroom.”
- “The right to opt out of a class or instructional materials for reasons based on either religion or personal conviction.”
- “The right to visit the child at school during school hours, consistent with school policy, unless otherwise specified in law or court order.”
- “The right to engage with locally elected school board members of the school district in which the child is a student, including participating at regularly scheduled school board meetings.”
The bill was opposed by more than a dozen groups that lobby on behalf of public schools and board members and was supported by a group that promotes private school vouchers and a legal firm that often represents parents in lawsuits against school districts.
In a recent legal analysis of the bill commissioned by the School Administrators Alliance, which opposed the bill, attorneys concluded it would “make it extremely difficult for districts to manage and deliver a successful education to all students.”
“Every parent will have a slightly different perspective on exercising these parental rights. Even in an intact marital family, parents might disagree on these rights, forcing school districts to attempt to mediate familial disputes to avoid legal action,” Attorneys Mike Julka and Brian Goodman wrote in a legal analysis for the group.
“Finally, if the Bill becomes law, schools would have to individualize their approach to each family based on each parental request. Parents that are more assertive in threatening or enforcing their rights under the Bill will be able to control the educational environment for other families. This has the possibility of creating equity issues for students with families that are less assertive in exercising their rights.”
Similar “Parents’ Bill of Rights” laws have been proposed around the country by Republicans aiming to curb COVID safety requirements in schools, help parents fight against certain books and curriculum materials, and limit the abilities of transgender students to live in a manner they choose.