Just Say No to Voucher Expansion

By Barbara Miner


Memo to all Wisconsin legislators. There is an easy way to prove you care about public education in Wisconsin. And it won’t cost a penny.

Just say no to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program providing tax dollars to private schools.

This may seem merely like a Milwaukee issue. It’s not. Voucher advocates have made clear for more than 20 years that their goal is to replace public education with a system of universal vouchers that includes private and religious schools.

The heartbreaking drama currently playing in Milwaukee – millions of dollars cut from the public schools while vouchers are expanded so wealthy families can attend private schools in the suburbs – may be coming soon to a school district near you.

For those who worry about taxation without representation, vouchers should send shivers down your spine. Voucher schools are defined as private even though subsidized by taxpayers.

As a result, voucher schools do not have to abide by basic accountability measures such as releasing their test scores to the public or providing data on teacher pay. They also can ignore basic democratic safeguards such as open meetings and records laws or due process rights for expelled students.

Former schoolteacher Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes,” eloquently summarizes the issue. Asked several years ago if he would be for vouchers, he answered, “Only if you want to kill public education. That sucking sound you hear is the sound of public schools collapsing with the voucher system.”

A history of expansion

The voucher program started in 1990, billed as an altruistic effort to help a few struggling community schools serving mostly poor black kids. There were only seven schools and 300 students, with the program costing $700,000. To most legislators, it seemed a worthwhile effort, sort of like throwing a few dollars in the church missionary basket.

Even then, however, backers, such as Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation, envisioned a full- scale voucher program. Michael Joyce, the late head of the foundation, made no secret of his belief that public schools were akin to socialism. Vouchers were his free-market alternative.

Bit by bit, budget by budget – as part of a long-term strategy – the program grew. The expansions always were couched in fine-sounding rhetoric that cloaked the program’s harm to public education.

This year, taxpayers are paying $131 million for the private school tuition of 21,000 students – making vouchers, in essence, one of the state’s largest school districts, on par with Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay. With the expansion, vouchers will become the state’s second-largest district, just behind Milwaukee.

All along, hard-core voucher proponents were using poor black kids as pawns in their voucher chess game. More than a decade ago, a strategy paper for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation likened vouchers for low-income children to a “viable beachhead,” a way “to win and hold new ground in the long march to universal school choice.”

Today, in Milwaukee, that long march is just about over. Vouchers are to be open, eventually, to any Milwaukee family, no matter how rich, to attend a private school anywhere in the county. The children of Milwaukee millionaires could conceivably receive $6,442 next year to help pay the $20,423 high school tuition at the private University School.

The Walker budget goes out of its way to help voucher schools and harm Milwaukee Public Schools. While voucher funding will increase, with no limit on how much, MPS faces untold millions in budget cuts. Some of those cuts are directly due to vouchers, which reduce the amount of state aid MPS otherwise would receive.

Milwaukee taxpayers, meanwhile, are forced to pick up the tab for more than a third of the voucher bill; already they pay $50 million a year.

Overall, Walker is cutting $834 million in public education – eliminating state funding for school nurses, Advanced Placement courses, alternative education and children at-risk programs. There are also significant cuts in programs such as the school breakfast program, Head Start and bilingual aid. Funding for special education and other essential programs is flat, with no additional money even if need increases.

Achievement no better

Voucher advocates promoted the assumption that private schools are inherently superior. The ruse worked for a few years – until stories started emerging about convicted rapists starting voucher schools or voucher administrators embezzling funds and buying expensive cars.

Under pressure, voucher schools were required to administer standardized tests. The results were not released publicly but to a group of academics in Arkansas. When those academics released their reports, the voucher schools did no better than MPS. What’s more, the reports became unreliable because more than half the students had dropped out of the voucher schools before final results could be tabulated.

Walker has figured a way out of this conundrum. He eliminates the requirement that voucher schools take the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination, the same test as public school students and the only test monitored by state officials. Once the WKCE is gone, there is no publicly accountable mechanism to gauge student performance in voucher schools. The voucher schools can claim whatever academic miracles they want – with no way to verify the information.

One thing can be verified. The public schools are left with students who are more challenging to teach. Take special education. About 20% of MPS students qualify for special ed services. And voucher schools? About 3%, most of whom have less severe challenges.

Taken as a whole, the Walker budget is a blueprint for expanding private schools and destroying public schools. And there’s nothing to stop this tragedy from spreading to the entire state.

Unless, of course, legislators do the right thing and protect the American dream of a free and public education for all children.

It isn’t hard. It won’t cost a penny. Just say no to the voucher expansion.

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist who has written on vouchers since the program began in 1990.