Monday, February 18, 2013

Voucher expansion the wrong direction for Wisconsin schools

Plan would take what little funds remain for many districts affected by Walker budget cuts to subsidize private schools

It is unfathomable, unconscionable, and irresponsible for Gov. Scott Walker to propose expanding the student voucher program in Wisconsin.

The program, begun in the early 1990s in Milwaukee, has allowed students in lower-income families the ability to select different education options for their children through vouchers to attend private schools. Such a program, it was thought, would allow children to have a better education in what was considered a more desirable option at presumably better schools.

Yet the academic results those children have had, in more than 20 years of the program’s existence, have been less than stellar. As I detailed late last month, Milwaukee Public School students who had similar economic backgrounds fared better than those in the voucher program, sometimes significantly so, in subjects like Math, Reading, and Science.

In other words, the Milwaukee voucher program is failing the students it claims to help. Calling the program a success is a misnomer, as students in the voucher program only fared significantly better (outpacing their MPS counterparts by more than three percentage points) in one of nine areas; MPS students, on the other hand, outperformed voucher students in four of those nine areas.

In making his announcement today, Gov. Walker has ignored the evidence of the voucher schools’ lackluster performances, choosing ideology over reality and jeopardizing the future of thousands of Wisconsin students.

“We’re willing to see the choice program grow. I think we’re doing it in a responsible way,” the governor said.

It’s hardly responsible to grow a flawed program, much less to deplete what are already meager funds away from public schools. Vouchers would do exactly that, taking monies from school districts that have been hit hardest by Gov. Walker’s school budget cuts in 2011.

The new districts that could see voucher programs -- Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis -- represent nearly 11 percent of the total cuts to schools (PDF) that Walker instituted his first year in office. Add Racine and Milwaukee school districts, and the total is even greater, representing more than a quarter of the total cuts. 

Vouchers wouldn’t help those districts, but rather would take away funds that are desperately needed for students in those schools. Each student that would take the voucher option would represent thousands of dollars that those districts frankly can’t afford to lose.

And where would those funds go to? Some would go toward schools that advocate certain religious beliefs, meaning your tax dollars could fund a church-based education program. Other funds could go to schools that don’t adhere to basic standards expected of districts across the state, meaning some Wisconsin students would be deprived of a basic educational standard.

Voucher schools help neither the students attending them nor the districts which ultimately lose funds to support them. It’s a losing situation for Wisconsin students in a number of districts affected by this proposal.

Sadly, Scott Walker’s reforms could end up ruining our state’s legacy of valuing academics, of making it our number one priority to ensure that those seeking an education in Wisconsin receive not just a basic understanding of the subjects they learn but an exemplary one at that.

Taking funds away from public schools goes against that tradition -- but it seems that Gov. Walker will do whatever it takes to appease the ideological wishes of his base, even if that goes against what’s best for Wisconsin students.

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