We urge the Legislature to substantially modify the governor’s plan or kill it outright.
Feb. 19, 2013 MJS Editorial
We have long supported choice in public education. We still believe that, despite its flaws, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program should have a place in the cafeteria of publicly funded options for city parents.
But Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to expand the voucher program
more broadly in Wisconsin is ill-advised. We urge the Legislature to substantially modify this wrongheaded idea or kill it outright.
Walker’s proposal, coming in Wednesday’s budget address, likely would open the voucher program to these districts: Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee. Long a bullet point on some Republican wish lists, the expansion would begin with 500 new students this fall, increasing to 1,000 next year and an unlimited number after that.
- Judging from years of evidence in Milwaukee, where the program has existed since the 1990s, there is precious little data to show that students in the voucher program do any better than students in the mainline Milwaukee Public Schools. The voucher program is a part of the education landscape in the city – and low-income parents don’t have the same choices that middle-income and wealthier families do. But there is little solid educational evidence that choice produces better educational outcomes. And accountability remains a concern.
- Any expansion should target low-income families who don’t have other choices. That was the original intention of the voucher program; it was not intended to become a parallel system statewide. Last year’s move by the Legislature to expand the program by relaxing income limits was a mistake.
- Traditional districts would lose state aid and property tax dollars as students migrate to new voucher schools. Advocates for choice argue that voucher schools are a better value because they educate children with fewer state resources, but how will traditional schools make up those lost dollars – especially coming after several years of budget pain? Districts will be stretched even thinner, and their students may be harmed.
- We’re persuaded by an argument voiced by state Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center). “We have a hard enough time to support one education system in this state, let alone two,” he said. He’s right.
Walker likely will argue that he’s also boosting support for traditional public schools. Don’t believe it. It’s a mirage. Walker is proposing an increase of at least 9% in taxpayer funding for private and religious voucher schools but plans to hold flat the per-pupil revenue limit for traditional K-12 schools.
That means those schools couldn’t tap additional resources he claims to be sending their way without first asking voters. That could be a major body blow to MPS, which had been counting on at least a $50-per-pupil increase that now may not come.
Walker’s budget proposal increases state aid to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade voucher schools to $7,050 per pupil from $6,442 in the 2014-’15 school year, an increase of $608 per pupil, or 9.4%. For voucher high schools, the per-pupil aid would rise to $7,856, an increase of $1,414, or 21.9%. For public schools, Walker is proposing a 1% increase in state general aid and some additional state money for specific purposes. But because the revenue cap would not increase, mainline districts would have to win referendums if they want to spend more.
The governor indicated he might be willing to limit access to new voucher schools only to students attending “failing” schools in a district. That’s an idea worth debating, but our concerns about limiting the program to the poor and its long-term financial effects on traditional districts remain.
Schultz and Republican state Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah) would require districts to hold a binding local referendum before students are allowed to attend voucher schools. Republican Sen. Rob Cowles of Allouez also backs that idea. So do we.
In addition to the voucher schools expansion, Walker will propose a state board to authorize more nonprofit entities to approve new charter schools, which operate independently of traditional school districts. In Wisconsin, they only exist in Milwaukee and Racine. In Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Common Council can authorize such schools. In Racine, UWM authorizes an independent charter school. Increasing the number of charter schools, if carefully monitored, has promise.
But we urge lawmakers to be very wary of Walker’s voucher school expansion. The evidence that these schools work better than traditional schools is thin. In any case, they should be reserved for low-income students; for the families who don’t have other choices. Building out a separate, perhaps less accountable system, to satisfy an ideological goal is misguided.
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