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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., clashed over school vouchers during a House subcommittee hearing on May 24, 2017. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., clashed over school vouchers during a House subcommittee hearing on May 24, 2017.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., clashed over school vouchers during a House subcommittee hearing on May 24, 2017.

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 31, 2017

Mark Pocan's errant claim about tax breaks in Wisconsin's school voucher program for low-income kids

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan tried to grill U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about a program he opposes: vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to send low-income children to private schools.

But while posing questions to DeVos at a House subcommittee hearing on May 24, 2017, the Madison-area Democrat made a claim that mixed up the long-standing voucher program in Wisconsin with a relatively new private school tax break that’s offered to people of all income levels.

"The last expansion in Wisconsin of this program -- 75 percent of the parents who got this money, their kids already attended the schools," Pocan said, after criticizing the voucher program at length.

"And two-thirds of the money that went in the tax vouchers to the folks who receive this were making more than $100,000. So, largely, this is tax policy, this isn't education policy."

The $100,000 claim is in reference to a tax break for people who themselves pay to send their children to private schools, not the voucher program.

The voucher program

The 2013-’15 state budget made more Wisconsin children eligible for the voucher program, which dates back to 1989, when Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and a Democratic-majority Legislature created the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the nation's first urban school voucher program of its kind in the country.

Its aim was to improve results for poor city children in public schools by allowing them to attend private or religious schools with publicly funded vouchers.

To be eligible for the vouchers -- tax dollars paid to the private schools for tuition -- families must meet income limits. For the 2017-’18 school year, the limit for a family of four is $72,900 for students in Milwaukee and Racine and $44,955 for other parts of the state.

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The tax credit

Unlike the voucher program, there are no income limits to qualify for the tax break, which reduces the taxable income for families who send their kids to private schools.

The break also was created as part of the 2013-’15 state budget. Taxpayers can subtract from their income amounts paid to private schools for tuition and mandatory student fees. For each student in kindergarten through eighth grade, the maximum deduction is $4,000; for each student in high school, the maximum is $10,000.

Pocan’s office told us the congressman made his claim based on a January 2017 news article in the Wisconsin State Journal. It says that in 2015, almost $8 million of the $12 million tax cut, or two-thirds, went to tax filers making more than $100,000. That amounted to about $388 per filer.

But the tax break has nothing to do with the voucher program.

Our rating

While criticizing Wisconsin’s school voucher program, Pocan said "two-thirds of the money" in Wisconsin’s school "tax vouchers" went to people "making more than $100,000."

But a tax break Pocan alludes to -- for people who themselves pay to send their kids to private schools -- has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s voucher program, which uses tax dollars to pay for low-income children to attend private schools.

We rate the statement False.

See Figure 2 on PolitiFact.com

Our Sources

YouTube, Mark Pocan questioning of Betsy DeVos (2:45), May 24, 2017

Email, Mark Pocan communications director David Kolovson, May 26, 2017

Wisconsin State Journal, "Top 13 percent of earners receiving two-thirds of private school tax benefit," Jan. 26, 2017

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "DeVos declines to say whether she'd send her kids to a Milwaukee voucher school," May 25, 2017

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Scott Walker gave $10,000 private school tax break to millionaires, AFL-CIO says," Aug. 31, 2014

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, "Private school choice programs -- frequently asked questions, 2017-’18 school year," accessed May 30, 2017

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Mark Pocan's errant claim about tax breaks in Wisconsin's school voucher program for low-income kids

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