Lessons from Wisconsin: The Slow, Stealthy, and Strategic Threat of School Vouchers

By Bob Peterson

Illustrator: Joe Brusky

From the decimation of welfare programs, to attacks on public sector unions, extreme gerrymandering and the mass incarceration of people of color, Wisconsin has been a petri dish for right-wing causes for more than three decades. This is perhaps most clear in the state legislature’s growing use of tax dollars to pay tuition at private, religious schools while straightjacketing funds for public schools.

Public funding of private school tuition in Wisconsin — known as “voucher” programs and sometimes disingenuously referred to as “school choice” — was originally sold to the state legislature in 1990 as a small program to help a few non-religious community-based schools serving low-income kids in Milwaukee. Step by step, the right wing has marched toward their strategic goal of taxpayer-funded vouchers for all students at all private schools. 

Today, there are almost 400 private, mostly religious schools throughout Wisconsin, annually receiving roughly half a billion dollars in taxpayer money. 

We live in a world where, in so many ways, the once-unthinkable is becoming reality. The message from Wisconsin to other states considering so-called voucher or private school “choice” programs: Beware. Well-funded right-wing forces have their eyes on dismantling our public schools.

As Ann Bastian, co-author of Choosing Equality: The Case for Democratic Schooling, foresaw a quarter century ago, “Privatizing public education is the centerpiece, the grand prize, of the right wing’s overall agenda to dismantle social entitlements and government responsibility for social needs.” 

In the 1990s, Wisconsin (along with Ohio and Indiana) was in the forefront of a handful of states finding ways to use public dollars to support private schools. By 2023, 30 states and Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., had 42 private school voucher programs, and more states are considering similar legislation, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher foundation in Indiana. The programs go by various innocuous, democratic-sounding names  — “Educational Savings Accounts,” “Education Freedom Accounts,” “Invest in Kids,” “Opportunity Scholarships,” “Empowerment Scholarships.” Some programs include homeschooling. They all transfer public tax dollars to private schools, often religious schools, with little or no accountability. 

The people of Wisconsin never voted in favor of public tax dollars going to private religious schools — instead, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature has done the work. In fact, throughout the country, any time vouchers have been put to a popular vote (such as statewide referendums in Michigan, Utah, and California), they have been soundly defeated. 

Undermining the right to a free and public education — enshrined in every state constitution — attacks democracy. As Indian novelist/activist Arundhati Roy has so eloquently noted: “Privatization of essential infrastructure is essentially undemocratic.”

Throughout the country, any time vouchers have been put to a popular vote, they have been soundly defeated.

Public Dollars for Private Schools

Looking over the more than three decades of Wisconsin’s voucher program, the right wing’s strategy has been clear: gain a foothold and advance whenever possible toward the goal of universal vouchers — i.e., public tax dollars paying students’ tuition at private schools, with few if any strings attached. The initial legislation was sold to reluctant lawmakers as a pilot program with a five-year sunset provision, targeted at families at or below 175 percent of the poverty level. Equally important, only 49 percent of a school’s students could receive vouchers, to try to ensure the schools were good enough to attract families privately paying tuition and therefore could be deemed “private.”

One by one, the legislature eliminated or significantly reduced those restrictions. Today, for instance, 33 of the state’s voucher schools do not have a single student privately paying tuition. Another 38 have fewer than 10 percent of the students privately paying tuition.

The right wing labels these private voucher schools as just another type of public school. Don’t be fooled. To argue that a private school is “public” merely because it receives public tax dollars is like arguing that your local Walmart is a public store because it accepts food stamps. 

Even when a voucher school does not have a single student paying private tuition, the state legally defines the school as private. This legal designation allows these private voucher schools to evade regulations that public schools must adhere to. Here are just a few of the important legal differences between public and private schools in Wisconsin:

  • Public schools are prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of sex, pregnancy, marital or parental status, or sexual orientation. Private voucher schools are allowed to circumvent these anti-discrimination measures. (The only restrictions are that voucher schools must adhere to federal anti-discrimination guidelines based on race, color, or national origin.)
  • Public schools must honor constitutional rights of free speech and association, and due process when a student is suspended or expelled. Private voucher schools do not
  • Public schools must follow Wisconsin’s open meetings and record laws. Private voucher schools do not. 
  • Public schools are controlled by publicly elected school boards. Private voucher schools are not. 
  • Wisconsin school board meetings are open to the public. Private school board meetings are not.

Publicly Funded Homophobia

The problems are particularly acute when tax dollars subsidize religious education at voucher schools — and 95 percent of voucher schools in Wisconsin are religious. Take what happened to two female students in 2022 at Fox Valley Lutheran High School. 

The two students were called into the dean’s office a few months before graduation, according to an investigative report last May in Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news service. One student was the cheerleading captain, the other a basketball player, homecoming queen, and student council member. In separate meetings, the two were told they faced expulsion because it was suspected that the two young women were dating each other. The school’s handbook prohibits any “homosexual behavior,” on or off campus. 

The cheerleading captain told Wisconsin Watch that the dean said they could graduate — on the condition they break up and speak to a pastor. The dean, meanwhile, “outed” the students to their parents.

In 2019, Sheboygan Lutheran High School canceled the valedictorian speech of Nat Werth after he came out as gay. According to Werth, the school’s handbook was subsequently expanded to include anti-transgender policies.  

Wisconsin has long been in the forefront of protecting LGBTQ+ students and employees, and in 1982 it became the first state to ban discrimination in public and private sector employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet today, because of public funding of private religious schools, Wisconsin taxpayers fund discrimination.

Gus Ramirez, whose family foundation runs the St. Augustine Prep voucher school in Milwaukee and plans to open another school, is clear that the school serves a select student body and promotes conservative religious beliefs.

“We hold firm to the biblical description of family at this school,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August. “That doesn’t mean all teachers and all staff are part of a nuclear family, but we strongly believe that nuclear family generates a lot better student outcomes. . . . Some will say that we’re too conservative, but for the most part our teachings are just aligned with Scripture.”

Skirting Special Education Law

Special education is another area with disturbing differences between public schools and private voucher schools. Public schools must adhere to all federal special education laws and regulations. Not so for private voucher schools. 

An official from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which oversees the voucher programs, told Wisconsin Watch that the DPI was “fully committed” to ensuring nondiscrimination of students with disabilities, but did not believe it had the authority to require the private schools to adhere to these federal requirements. 

“DPI has significant concerns about the DPI’s authority to ensure that Choice schools do not discriminate against students with disabilities,” the agency’s chief legal counsel wrote in a letter to Wisconsin Watch.

Nicholas Kelly, president of the voucher organization School Choice Wisconsin, disputed the allegations of discrimination and sent a letter to Wisconsin Watch that read, in part: “Fundamentally, parental choice and educational freedom provide accountability. If parents or students are not satisfied with the education they receive they can choose another school.”

Discrimination Regardless of the State

As voucher programs have expanded across the country, pro-public school activists have documented various forms of discrimination.

In December 2023 the Education Voters of Pennsylvania issued “Pennsylvania Voucher Schools Use Tax Dollars to Advance Discrimination.” The report focuses on two of the four “scholarship programs” put in place in 2001 with annual funding of $340 million. The study highlights exclusionary and discriminatory policies and practices, found on the websites of private and religious voucher schools that participate in the Opportunity Schools Tax Credit program.

For example, the Dayspring Christian Academy “retains the right to refuse enrollment to or to expel any student who engages in sexual immorality, including any student who professes to be homosexual/bisexual/transgender or is practicing homosexual/bisexual/transgender, as well as any student who condones, supports, or otherwise promotes such practices.”

A similar study was influential in December 2003, when the Illinois legislature refused to renew the “Invest in Kids” voucher program, and to allow individuals and businesses to redirect the state taxes they owed to support private schools. (The policy was also criticized for potentially creating a $75 million hole in the state budget.) 

The nonprofit organization Illinois Families for Public Schools found that nearly 20 percent of the schools that would have benefited from the renewed Invest in Kids Program had anti-LGBTQ+ policies. It also found that only 13 percent of the private schools in the Invest in Kids program served any special education students in 2022. 

Improve, Don’t Destroy, Public Education

For every dollar that goes to a private voucher school, that money is unavailable for funding public schools. Those of us who work in public education are acutely aware of its shortcomings and challenges; too often our public schools reinforce social, racial, and gender inequality, especially in areas already segregated by class and race. But they are also battlegrounds to defend and promote progressive social policies, and are obligated to serve the needs of all children. 

Establishing two school systems — one public and one private, yet both supported with tax dollars — only expands the ability of private schools to pick and choose their students, reinforce inequality, and teach a biased curriculum. The public should not be forced to subsidize educational programs that promote religious beliefs that might be antagonistic to one’s own religious views. 

Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D) was a state representative when vouchers first passed the Wisconsin legislature, and voted for the program because it was small, secular, and experimental. “Of course, this is a vote I deeply regret,” she later said. “I never was the kind of voucher person who wanted to destroy public education.” 

Public schools are the only educational institutions in our communities that have the capacity, commitment, and the legal obligation to serve all students. We must fight to improve our public schools and defeat the threat of private school vouchers. 

White Supremacy, Capitalism, and School Vouchers
In recent years, the right has developed a two-pronged education strategy: first, attack curriculum that deals with gender identity and white supremacy; second, promote voucher programs that use public money to pay for private school tuition.

Funders such as the Bradley Foundation, the Waltons, and the Koch brothers have been involved in everything from school board races, to cookie-cutter state legislation, to astroturf parent groups. A few examples: the American Federation for Children, Moms for Liberty, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Private school vouchers began with the white supremacist reaction to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned legalized Jim Crow.

Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.), for instance, proposed “massive resistance” to Brown. By the summer of 1954, Byrd’s followers “were calling for the shutdown of the state school system and the use of tax dollars to fund new private segregated schools for white children,” according to historian Nancy MacLean in her essay “How Milton Friedman Exploited White Supremacy to Privatize Education.” 

In the decade after Brown, seven Southern legislatures passed laws that provided public vouchers for private schools and transferred public school property to private organizations, according to Steve Suitts in Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement. 

The clearest link between vouchers and white supremacy was the 1959–1964 closure of all public schools in Prince Edward County, Maryland. After the schools closed, the county school board provided vouchers for white families to send their children to all-white private schools. 

A year after Brown, the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman called for replacing the funding of “government schools” [i.e., public schools] with “vouchers for any approved school, public or private, secular or religious.” He later wrote about the “problem” of school segregation versus integration and said, “The appropriate solution is to eliminate government operation of the schools and permit parents to choose the kind of school they want their children to attend.” 

Today’s voucher movement — replacing the direct wooing of white supremacists with a libertarian, marketplace strategy — was born. 

McLean points out that Friedman’s “educational freedom” approach provided white supremacists “a more sophisticated, and for more than a decade, court-proof way to preserve Jim Crow. All they had to do was cease overt focus on race and instead deploy a neoliberal language of personal liberty, government failure and the need for market competition in the provision of public education.”

Core tenets of the right-wing attack on public education — that public schools have curricula and programs that acknowledge the reality of issues such as climate change, racism, and gender-based discrimination — have long been present in the voucher movement. 

In Wisconsin, for instance, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation has played a seminal role in promoting vouchers. Michael Joyce, the Bradley Foundation’s president during the voucher program’s initial years, was “unfailingly critical of public schools,” notes Barbara Miner in Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City. He considered them “examples of socialism that promoted everything from environmental extremism, to virulent feminism, to racial separation.” 

When Joyce promoted vouchers to a Milwaukee audience, he presented the foundation as a savior of the poor, helping them escape failing public schools. He was more forthright when addressing a national audience. If a voucher system “is good public policy for the poor,” he said to the Baltimore Sun, “why isn’t it good public policy for middle or high-income wage earners?”

At the time, such views were rarely promoted. Today, it is a common theme in promoting private school vouchers. The right wing, from the start, has had a strategic goal of universal vouchers and the demise of public education.

Bob Peterson (bob.e.peterson@gmail.com) is a founding editor of Rethinking Schools and was a member of the Milwaukee School Board from 2019 to 2023, and board president for the final two years. He was a classroom teacher in public schools for more than 25 years, and president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union from 2011 to 2015. He would like to thank Barbara Miner for help with this article.