Students in Wisconsin head back to school in a politicized educational environment that’s headed in the wrong direction.
Wisconsin Republicans took heat for slashing school spending by $575 per pupil in the 2011–13 biennial budget. Now they want credit for providing a $75-per-pupil increase in the 2014–15 budget.
Not only does the increase fail to make a dent in the damage they’ve done, but also the Republicans’ plan will ultimately drain $1.9 billion from the public school system every year, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
That’s because accompanying the increase is an expansion of the state’s school voucher system, which has evolved into a right-wing mechanism whereby taxpayer money goes to discriminatory, faith-based schools.
Voucher programs were designed as a way for poor kids from blighted neighborhoods to gain access to better schools in safer settings. But that’s not how they’ve worked out.
Over the past 20 years, the state has spent $1.5 billion on a pilot voucher program involving schools in Milwaukee and Racine. Repeated studies show these voucher school students not only fare no better, but often fare worse than their public school counterparts.
DPI data comparing the performances of voucher and Milwaukee Public School students in the 4th, 8th and 10th grades during the 2010–11 school year found that MPS students outperformed voucher students in eight out of nine categories.
Still, Gov. Scott Walker is expanding the program under pressure from national right-wing groups that have poured millions of dollars into Wisconsin elections. Their ultimate goal is to replace the public school system with private, for-profit schools.
While it has failed academically, the voucher system has accomplished some darker goals. Primarily, it diverts money from public schools to subsidize private-school tuition. Sixty-seven percent of the students who attend voucher schools already attended a Wisconsin private school in the previous school year. Thus, rather than helping poor students gain access to private schools, two-thirds of the money spent on vouchers in Wisconsin go to parents who could already afford private school tuition without public assistance.
The voucher system also is used to help parents – at taxpayer expense – send their kids to religious schools that can openly discriminate against LGBT people and teach that science is nonsense. Only a handful of the 123 schools participating in Milwaukee’s 20-year-old voucher program are secular.
Voucher schools also can discriminate against students with learning and other disabilities.
The state has no accountability standards for voucher schools. That means money needed by public schools that are mandated to maintain academic standards is going to an increasing number of schools that can provide inferior educations with impunity.
For parents who want a better education for their kids, voucher schools are not the answer. They can hire unlicensed teachers and have no responsibility to the taxpayer.
Those parents – indeed all of us who care about the future of our children and our state – should be very wary of the misleading “school choice” rhetoric used to promote voucher schools. We must fight to oppose their expansion and make support of voucher schools a litmus test for determining whether to vote for candidates at all levels.
The voucher approach is a step backward for education in Wisconsin and the nation.