Minocqua Brewery SuperPAC aims to end private voucher schools in new lawsuit

Northwoods Brewery owner says financing private schools devastates public education

Children in a classroom
In this Oct. 20, 2017, first-graders listen to teacher Dwane Davis at Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, a charter school in Milwaukee. Carrie Antlfinger/ AP Photo

The owner of a Northwoods brewpub is challenging the legality of Wisconsin’s private voucher school program, calling it “devastating” to public schools.

Minocqua Brewery owner Kirk Bangstad regularly mixes his business operations with fights for liberal causes. He funded the lawsuit on behalf of Wisconsin parents, grandparents and “concerned citizens.” Bangstad said the current school financing system fails to equitably distribute resources and threatens the financial stability of public education in Wisconsin.

Last year, Wisconsin taxpayers spent about $568.5 million on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, the Racine Parental Choice Program, the Special Needs Scholarship Program, and the Independent Charter School Program, according to Department of Public Instruction records.

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Next year, that amount will increase. The state budget included the largest financial expansion to private school choice in the program’s history.

Funding for kindergarten through 8th grade private choice schools increased from about $8,400 per student to $9,500 per student. Funding for private choice high schools will go from $9,045 to $12,000 per student.

“The revenue limit and funding schemes for voucher school programs and independent charter schools violate the Wisconsin Constitution’s Public-Purpose Requirement and the Uniform Taxation Clause,” said Brian Potts, an attorney on the case. “This parasitic funding system is pushing public school districts into an ever-worsening financial crisis, which is leading to what can only be described as a funding death spiral for public education.”

But voucher school advocates say if the lawsuit is successful, low-income children will suffer because they are the beneficiaries of private school education through the voucher system.

Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said the conservative law firm is preparing to file a motion to intervene in the case to defend the parents, students and teachers who participate in choice schools across the state. Esenberg called the lawsuit “incomplete, misleading and misinformed.”

“Wisconsin’s choice program serves over 52,000 students and plays a vital role in Wisconsin’s education system,” Esenberg said in a statement. “Unfortunately, far-left interest groups are uniting behind a Super PAC, to take education options away from low- and middle-income kids and families across the state.”

State Superintendent Jill Underly released a statement, saying she welcomes any opportunity that would strengthen public education.

“Education represents an incredible opportunity to learn, grow, and strengthen our state, but public education represents even more than that. Public education is a constitutional right,” Underly’s statement said. “Wisconsin needs to fulfill its responsibility to effectively, equitably, and robustly fund our public education system. I welcome any opportunity to move Wisconsin in that direction.”

The lawsuit is being funded by the Minocqua Brewing Company’s SuperPAC, which Bangstad has used since 2021 to fund liberal political causes.

The group has purchased billboard ads attacking Republican politicians and marketed beers named after Democratic politicians including an Evers Ale for Gov. Tony Evers and Tammy Shandy for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Bangstad first announced his efforts to end Wisconsin’s private school voucher system in August on social media.

In his Facebook post, Bangstad said the Wisconsin Constitution’s “public purpose requirement,” states that public funds can only be used for public purposes.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already rejected a similar challenge to Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1992. But Bangstad believes since that decision, the voucher program has changed.

“Voucher programs are no longer experimental; they have ballooned and become entrenched throughout Wisconsin,” he wrote. “As a result, our legal team believes that this decision should not serve as legal precedent to uphold the voucher programs in their current form.”

Bangstad also said that because taxpayer funded voucher schools do not have to comply with core educational standards and have no obligation to provide services to students with disabilities, they should not be subsidized.

His case is being led by Washington DC-based attorney Greg Lipper, Madison-based Potts and Minocqua-based attorney Frederick Melms.

Bangstad estimates his case will cost at least $200,000. He’s asking for donations.

This summer, Bangstad was in jeopardy of losing his business over a dispute involving parking regulations and plans to open an outdoor beer garden.

The dispute was later resolved, but during the conflict with the Oneida County zoning committee, Bangstad took to social media repeatedly claiming he was being targeted by a conservative board because of his liberal political views.

Bangstad briefly ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2015, and he ran for state Assembly in 2020.

This is not his first education-related lawsuit.

In October 2021, the Minocqua Brewing Company super PAC filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Waukesha School District for ending mask mandates.

The suit was dismissed by Wisconsin’s Eastern District court in December 2021.