Lawmakers propose program to give money to ‘gifted’ children in low-income households

December 15, 2017 GMT

Children living in low-income households who are considered to be advanced learners will be eligible to receive a taxpayer-funded scholarship to use to pay for education expenses under a new program proposed by three lawmakers this week.

The scholarship program would provide $1,000 to families with “gifted and talented” students who are already eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches, which means the household’s annual income is at or below $45,510 annually for a family of four.

The program is proposed by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee -- lawmakers who have historically been strong supporters of private school voucher and charter schools -- and will be open to 2,000 families beginning in the 2018-19 school year, if the bill passes and is signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

“These scholarships will provide students in families with low incomes the ability to access a wide range of educational opportunities that they may currently not have the resources to participate in,” the lawmakers wrote in a memo seeking support from other lawmakers.


“Who knows how many scientists, engineers, musicians, artists, and community leaders we are missing out on because their family can’t afford additional educational opportunities,” Darling said in a statement.

Republican lawmakers have been eyeing what are known as education savings accounts -- dubbed a new generation of vouchers by education experts -- for more than a year. Assembly Republicans said in late 2016 that a priority would be to examine whether bringing programs known as education savings accounts to Wisconsin would make sense for Wisconsin families.

The accounts for K-12 schools first appeared in 2011, and are popular among conservatives and opposed by Democrats and teachers unions as a new version of a taxpayer-funded school voucher.

The conservative group American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps lawmakers write model legislation, released model policy language on Education Savings Accounts in 2016. In Wisconsin, the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released a study on the accounts last year. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, called the proposal in 2016 a “back-door scheme” to send more money to private education providers.

Such accounts are in use in at least five states and generally allow parents of eligible children -- typically students with disabilities or low-income students or those attending schools that don’t meet state education standards — receive several thousand dollars from the state to pay educational expenses, including tuition, textbooks and tutoring and in some cases leftover money can be saved for college.


The Wisconsin proposal, however, is limited to children who are scoring in the top 5 percent of standardized tests or have been identified “by an education official” as being gifted and talented “if a student demonstrates evidence of high-performance capability in intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, or specific academic areas and needs services or activities not ordinarily provided in a regular school program.”

Parents would be able to use the money for education services or expenses authorized by the Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s 422 school districts and federal funding for schools. Expenses could include tuition and fees, textbooks, payments to a licensed or accredited tutor, payments to purchase a curriculum, tuition and fees for a private online learning program, fees for Advanced Placement exams, private music or art lessons, according to the bill’s analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

Parents or guardians of eligible students must agree to comply with attendance requirements and not accept a payment, refund or rebate from a person who provides or service or product purchased by the scholarship funds.

Each student’s funds will be held in an account administered by the DPI, which is directed by the bill to develop a system to disburse the money for the student’s expenses which includes paying directly for expenses or reimbursing parents for expenses. The account will be closed when the student graduates high school, reaches the age of 21 or is no longer eligible to participate in the program. Leftover money will go back into the state’s general fund, according to the bill’s analysis. The funds will not be able to be saved for college, according to a spokesman for Darling.

Under the bill, the entire program may be administered by a private, nonprofit group through a contract with DPI.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said his members generally oppose such programs because it sends public money to private organizations and companies, and sees the proposal as expanding the voucher system.

He said because the state’s open enrollment program allows students to take classes in other schools at no charge, and because public schools are required to offer services for gifted and talented students, the program will is likely aimed at students in the state’s private voucher programs.

“We see this as a mechanism that will be used to purchase services from private providers because anybody is entitled to use the services at public schools at no charge so why would you need the scholarship money if you could just go for free in a class at a public school?” Rossmiller said.

He said the bill will likely have wide support in the Legislature.

“What this may be getting at is an opportunity gap -- there are a lot of poor kids that don’t have resources to (pay for extra education expenses) and may be stuck in particular in the summer time when school is not in session,” he said. “What they’ve done here is taken what most people would see as a deserving population and single them out for special treatment which is going to make it hard to not support the bill.”

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said the proposal won’t affect funding for public school districts or private school voucher schools because the funding is additional to what’s already allocated for schools.

“There are amazing children in every corner of Wisconsin. However, we know that many gifted and talented programs have gone away over time. Especially in rural and urban areas, students have limited options to maximize their gifted abilities,” Bender said.

He said while the pro-public education “system” has opposed using public money for private use, “parents are very different.” Bender said he could see parents in Madison -- where gifted and talented services in the Madison School District have been under scrutiny for years -- could find attractive options in music, art and other areas. Rossmiller, however, said there likely won’t be a lot of eligible students in the Madison district.

Will Flanders, education research director for the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which advocates for vouchers, said too often advanced learners can be put on the “back burner” and that the bill “represents an important recognition that Wisconsin can no longer afford to ignore the needs of its gifted students, especially those that are low-income.”

A spokeswoman for WEAC and a spokesman for DPI did not respond to requests for comment.