MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The president of the Wisconsin Senate said Thursday that he will oppose any expansion of school vouchers unless local residents vote on such a move, a proposal that could jeopardize growth of the program outside of Milwaukee and Racine.
Republican Mike Ellis told The Associated Press he has made it known that he will block any growth of the program without requiring a vote of people in the local school district, setting up a conflict with powerful school choice advocates and other members of his party who oppose such a requirement.
"We will have democracy at its purest," Ellis said of his idea. "The people will decide."
The program gives eligible parents a state-funded voucher of $6,442 per child to defray their children's private school tuition. Conservatives insist it gives children in underperforming schools an alternative, but opponents say it takes needed money away from public schools and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education.
Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to approve vouchers in 1990. Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature last session expanded vouchers to Racine, eliminated an enrollment cap in Milwaukee and raised income limits to allow middle class students to participate. The Legislature also permitted students in the city of Milwaukee to use vouchers at private schools in Milwaukee County.
School Choice Wisconsin, which lobbies for expansion of vouchers, opposes Ellis's idea.
"Certainly a senator that witnessed the ugly tactics and massive resources of the unions at the Capitol would not suggest that the same battle be fought at the local level by parents in a failing school trying to find a better future for their children," said the group's president, Jim Bender.
Teachers and other union members rallied for weeks in 2011 against Walker's proposal effectively ending their ability to collectively bargain. Ellis said he expected his proposal to be opposed by voucher advocates but took issue with how Bender framed the matter.
"We don't have any failing school districts in northeastern Wisconsin so if voters want to have this, let's have that dialogue," Ellis said. "Throwing up the mess in Madison from 2011 is a red herring."
The statewide teachers union, Wisconsin Education Association Council, opposes vouchers because they take money away from public schools. The group's spokeswoman Christina Brey said that while it doesn't like vouchers, if they are going to be allowed, local communities should have to vote on them as Ellis is proposing.
Walker and other Republican leaders have said further growth of the voucher program is one of their top priorities this year, although the governor hasn't said specifically what he will propose. Details aren't expected until he releases his budget next month.
Walker's spokesman would not comment directly on Ellis's proposal, which has yet to be introduced.
"Gov. Walker is committed to expanding educational opportunities across the state," Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said in a statement. "With that said we're still working on the mechanics of how to best achieve this goal in the upcoming state budget."
Ellis opposes putting expansion of vouchers in the budget and said he will fight to have it taken out and considered as a separate proposal.
Ellis is part of an 18-15 Republican majority in the state Senate. Assuming all Democrats supported his plan, he would have to convince at least one other Republican to go along with him.
A spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said it was difficult to comment on the issue until they knew what Walker was proposing in the budget.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has supported expansion of vouchers to other cities without requiring a local vote. His spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson praised Ellis.
"While Gov. Walker is calling for increased oversight of our public schools, we cannot hand over more taxpayer dollars to fund an unproven, unaccountable experiment on our children," Larson said in a statement. "Sen. Ellis is right to question the voucher program."
Ellis took the lead last year on reaching a deal that blocked the automatic expansion of vouchers.
In defending his latest idea, he said there should be a local vote because when students enter the voucher program it takes money away from public schools. That, in turn, could result in higher property taxes for everyone, he said.
The signature requirement to put a vote for voucher expansion on the ballot would be the same as what is needed in a recall, he said. That is 25 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. Only people who live in the affected school district could vote.
The voucher program is currently available only to students whose families earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty rate, or $69,801 for a family of four.
There is no limit on enrollment in the Milwaukee program, which gave out 24,000 vouchers this school year. Racine reached its cap of 500 vouchers this year, but there will be no limit starting next year.