Wisconsin Battle Moves from Collective Bargaining to School Choice
Governor Walker's epic battle with Democrats and their union allies has transformed into a new confrontation over the educational freedom of low-income and middle-class families. On Sunday, the governor signed a two-year budget that contains a provision to expand school choice programs to heavily populated Milwaukee and Racine Counties.
The current program has been in place for twenty years and is limited to City of Milwaukee residents only. Participating private schools receive $6,442 of taxpayer funds per student, which is about two-thirds of the amount allotted to public schools. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the new provision makes vouchers available to second-class cities that have 50% or more of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch and meet certain state aid requirements.
Wisconsin has sixteen second-class cities, which generally have populations between 39,000 and 149,999. Of the state's 424 school districts, a total of 244 could presumably meet the same criteria. State Superintendent Tony Evers believes that Wisconsin is now set to make "catastrophic cuts in funding for public schools." Similarly, Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, claims that "vouchers would destroy public schools."
Note that the singular concern shared by both Evers and Turner is funding alone, and not the actual relationship between educational subsidies and test scores. Globally, America is second only to Luxembourg in education spending, yet the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development currently ranks our scholastic achievements 18th among industrialized nations. And despite the highest per-pupil spending in the Midwest, the U.S. Department of Education reports that two-thirds of the eighth-graders in Wisconsin public schools cannot read proficiently.
What Evers and Turner truly fear is competition. The very nature of their argument concedes that when families are empowered with educational choice, they don't choose public schools. According to the state Department of Public Instruction, private school enrollment in Milwaukee has grown by 14% in the past decade. As voucher programs expand across the state, this trend will continue, and individuals like Evers and Turner will see their personal influence and political donations decrease.
Unlike in public schools, Evers and Turner can't control private-school curricula. This means that fewer children will attend California-style labor study classes where students design union logos, membership cards, and calculate "union dues as a percentage of wages." This also means unions could see a reduction in membership, and Evers' campaign funding would take a substantial hit. Unemployment isn't the issue. Public schools will either improve their results, and attendance will stay high, or certain public schools will remain unacceptable, and parents will send their kids elsewhere. Regardless, the same number of kids will need to be educated, and potentially more jobs will be created because private schools have a higher teacher-to-student ratio.
It's not about the children. Evers, Turner, and company are solely concerned about their personal power and wealth. As long as parents are forced into sending their children to public schools, dismal global rankings, absurdly low graduation rates, and low test scores have no effect on attendance levels. Yes, the word is forced. For the reality is that millions of low-income and middle-class families can't afford to fund the public school system and pay private school tuition fees at the same time. By mandating that tax dollars exclusively fund public schools, liberals ensure that the disadvantaged have only one option.
Vouchers change this. Despite the ongoing rhetoric, Democrats aren't interested in giving poor children the same opportunities afforded to rich ones. To blacks and Hispanics who constitute a disproportionate percentage of Wisconsin's low-income demographic, their position remains the same: too bad for you.
Only under pressure from local officials did the Republican-controlled legislature add Milwaukee and Racine counties to the school choice program. However, Senate President Mike Ellis and Assembly Finance Committee Chairman Robin Voss have been cowed into promising separate legislation to block any further expansion. Governor Walker has promised to abide by their decision.
It appears that geographical boundaries will still define which disadvantaged families deserve educational choice.