John Havlicek: Vouchers are a failed experiment
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John Havlicek: Vouchers are a failed experiment

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Gov. Scott Walker was in La Crosse Sunday, Aug. 12 and I asked some questions about education, since his ads are proclaiming that he is the “education governor.” Our discussion centered on the Wisconsin statewide voucher program and when we disagreed, Gov. Walker asked me to send him the research.

John Havlicek

John Havlicek

I have four basic problems with the voucher program in Wisconsin.

First, this idea that money should follow the student is based on flawed logic. Schools have costs that do not fluctuate based on any single student attending: “economy of scale” simply doesn’t work as we add or subtract a few students; the logical fallacy actually has a name: the heap fallacy.

Second, voucher schools do not take every student. They do not have the same percentage of “free and reduced meal” qualifying students, the same percentage of students that have learning disabilities, etc.; they take the kids that are “easy” to educate and counsel out or ignore the kids that need more support. Voucher schools do not have to offer the services that public schools are legally required to offer, so many parents simply will not send their children there. This is called “creaming,” and is segregationist.

Third, vouchers drain needed funding from public schools. Gov. Walker said that the money was insignificant, less than 1 percent of the budget, but $260 million statewide is significant. In La Crosse, almost a million dollars flows to private school vouchers, primarily for students that were already enrolled there. This has resulted in a loss of funding for La Crosse public schools, and has pushed that funding onto local property taxpayers — many who don’t want a voucher program.

Finally, voucher schools do not do better than neighborhood public schools. At best, they do about the same, and they usually do worse. The governor gave one counter-example from Milwaukee and again asked for the research.

Governor, here is the research you politely requested.

First, the National Education Policy Center in Colorado is the “gold standard” in education research. From a recent study, “Since as early as the 1980s, research has demonstrated that the supposed advantage of private school education is not supported by evidence.” But, this paper doesn’t only address private schools, it states specifically about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (voucher program), that it “consistently failed to demonstrate that vouchers are effective in empowering low-income families, improving public schools, increasing student achievement, or saving money.”

In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin State Journal reports data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showing that, after 25 years of this failed experiment, students receiving vouchers did not score as high on reading and math tests as their public-school counterparts.

Next, the New York Times in 2017 published an article describing three studies (Indiana in 2015, Louisiana in 2015, and a study by the extremely conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2017) that all show negative impacts of vouchers on student learning.

As I continued, I found scholarly papers by researchers at Stanford University that vouchers do not improve student learning. EdWeek published articles in 2017 that also showed that vouchers are not “working.”

As far as “creaming,” the evidence is conclusive. In 2015-16, about 13 percent of public school students received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In voucher schools, that data is elusive, since private schools are exempt from most of the reporting requirements that public schools have. However, even a report from the reliably conservative University of Arkansas, with significant funding from the Walmart heirs, found that in the Milwaukee voucher program, as few as 7.5 percent of the voucher students had any type of learning disability, compared with a staggering 19 percent of all students in Milwaukee public schools in 2012.

Finally, I understand that wealthy donors fund studies to get results that they want. But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is an international group outside our politics. It has studied the effects of private and public schools on student learning. In 2017, it concluded that students in public schools learn more than students in private schools when we account for one thing: poverty. When we account for that, public schools do better.

So, Gov. Walker, here is the research. Please read it and act to shut down this failed voucher system, stop funneling public dollars to private schools and properly fund the public schools of Wisconsin. If you won’t, we will have to find someone who will.

John Havlicek is president of the La Crosse Education Association.

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