Mark Pocan MJSentinel 9/25/16
Taxpayer-funded voucher schools lack high educational standards for students and teachers, discriminate against certain students, and fail to demonstrate true academic achievement.
When I first came to Congress, I called on the Government Accountability Office to study taxpayer-funded school voucher programs across the country. Wisconsin is home to the nation’s first and largest taxpayer-funded voucher experiment with more than 31,000 students enrolled in the program across the state. The GAO report, which was released last week, confirms many of my deepest concerns.
Taxpayer-funded voucher schools, the report found, lack high educational standards for students and teachers, discriminate against certain students and fail to demonstrate true academic achievement. Republicans in Wisconsin and across the country are breaking our public education system by depleting funds from public schools and rerouting them to the comparatively few students in private schools.
In Wisconsin, about 79% of the new students who received a taxpayer-subsidized voucher in 2013 were already attending private schools. This means taxpayer dollars are not being used to advance public education, but instead are being used to subsidize the education of a small number of students already enrolled in private schools. Students and teachers in public schools are suffering from diminishing funds, and it demonstrates a tactic to further privatize education. According to a report from the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this year, funding for voucher school students across the state was up 14% while funding for our public school students is down by 4%. This marked the first year in which school districts experienced a drop in state aid in order to pay for students living in district boundaries but attending private schools.
Taxpayer-funded voucher and charter schools exhaust needed resources in public education and they also fail to serve all students. Advocates for people with disabilities, including the ACLU and Disability Rights Wisconsin, have raised concerns that Wisconsin’s school choice program, either tacitly or explicitly, allows voucher schools to discriminate against students with disabilities in their admission policies. Many of these programs cannot even meet the basic needs of students with disabilities who are enrolled in their program, leaving students and their families struggling to find appropriate educational services which would have been otherwise guaranteed in a public school.
A number of revelations from the report further call into question the legitimacy of these schools. The GAO’s report found some taxpayer-funded voucher schools do not have a set of minimum criteria for the teachers tasked with educating our kids. It also was disturbing that GAO confirmed that taxpayer-funded voucher schools can mandate religious requirements for students as a part of admissions criteria.
The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal reported earlier this summer that Right Step Inc., a taxpayer-funded voucher school in Milwaukee, was being sued by a group of parents for allegedly abusive practices. Reports indicate that only 7% of students tested at this school met English language arts proficiency and 0% were proficient in math.
In its report, GAO recommends that the federal Department of Education issue guidance on how taxpayer-funded voucher programs affect federal education dollars and public school systems. I agree the Department of Education should provide additional guidance but I also believe taxpayers must demand accountability from taxpayer-funded private voucher schools that do not have the same level of accountability as public schools.
It is unconscionable for taxpayers to continue funding these profit-making schemes disguised as schools. It is time for the Department of Education to protect students and further clarify the steps to ensure oversight. After all, this should be about quality education for our kids.
Mark Pocan is a Democratic congressman from Madison.