There are many reasons why we are opposed to the expansion of private voucher schools in Wisconsin, but our main concern could be boiled down to equality and accountability.
Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2013-15 budget would allow the use of public tax dollars to fund private schools through the use of vouchers. It would expand the program to any school district with at least 4,000 students that has at least two schools that are designated as failing.
Under those standards, nine more school districts would fall into the voucher criteria. La Crosse — with two schools at or below the accountability score set by the state — is very close to falling into that category.
No one wants failing schools. We want all of our students — whether they attend public or private schools — to succeed. Parents should have the right — as they do now to choose where they want to send their children.
But it’s counterintuitive to suggest that the way to improve public schools is to reduce their funding and transfer the money to private institutions, where there is no accountability and different standards. Diluting the strength of public education will not solve its weaknesses.
The state should actually spend more on public education. Updated budget figures that came in late last week show the state with an additional $500 million. A good chunk of that money should be reinvested in public education, since the last budget cut $1.6 billion in education funding, to the tune of $550 a student.
Public schools are subject to open-records laws and total transparency when it comes to spending. Private schools are not. Sending taxpayer dollars into a system that does not have to justify how it is being spent nor share specific results on testing standards is poor public policy.
The very nature of public schools makes them big-tent educators. Students from all walks of life — rich or poor, inner-city or rural, all cultural backgrounds and learning disabilities from the mild to severe — are entitled to a public education. If a student with a severe learning disability requires one-on-one help from an aide, that’s what is provided. Public schools are required to provide teachers or instructors who have specific training for special needs students. All public school teachers are licensed, which is not a requirement with all private schools.
Private schools have the right — even under vouchers — to not accept a child, for whatever reason. They also have the right to teach religious-based curriculum, which is often the reason why parents choose to send their children to those schools. Putting children into that setting who may resist religious-based learning can spoil that learning environment for the children who want to be there.
Wisconsin families already have plenty of school choices without an expansion of vouchers. Open enrollment allows families to enroll their children in other districts.
Vouchers were created in Wisconsin as a way to improve Milwaukee Public Schools in the 1990s. Even now we have little data to show whether those students do any better than those in the public schools.
Are there challenges with public education in Wisconsin? Of course there are. But we should not expand a system created for inner-city Milwaukee to the rest of the state when we’re not even sure if it works.