Over twenty years ago, a group of education policymakers and politicians came together and created a fundamentally flawed policy of providing a public subsidy for private schools in Milwaukee. This subsidy program is now poised for statewide implementation, and unlike twenty years ago, we can now say with great certainty that this program is contributing to the systemic destruction of public education in Wisconsin. Schools in areas of high urban and rural poverty are already experiencing the effects of this systemic destruction, as are many school districts who must continually pass referendum after referendum to exceed the local levy limit just to maintain basic educational services. We now have twenty years of context not available to the well intended, but misguided private school subsidy program advocates. They tried to create policy with sweeping systemic implications in the vacuum of their own ideology. It is time to put that experiment to rest and focus on the only system capable of providing the greatest of educational opportunities to the most children—Wisconsin Public Education.
Wisconsin Public Education is a system. The school finance system interacts with state and local economic factors to provide the moral investment for the future of public education. A breakdown of any part of the system, as we have so witnessed over the most recent decade, affects the entire system. More than any time in recent memory, educational opportunity is greatly defined by where a student lives, and who they are.
Our public schools are systemically connected with our communities, large and small. It is virtually impossible for a local public school to prosper in a community that is in the throes of socio-economic depression. All measures of school and student performance confirm this systemic fact. Yet there is no discussion of using these performance measures, such as the School Report Cards, to determine what can be done to improve these effects on schools and communities. Factors such as state/local economics, student family poverty, habitual truancy, teacher experience, community health, parental participation and education all have significant impact on the systemic nature of education.
With twenty years of data and research, we now know that the public subsidizing of private schools affects those systemic factors in the WRONG direction—contributing to the systemic destruction of public education in Wisconsin. From the very formation of these private subsidies, policymakers and politicians abandoned any serious consideration of systemic causation. Instead, they designed a flawed policy based on short term, direct causation ideology. Twenty years later, we can identify their flawed rationales:
1. “Parents will always make the best choices for their children”—This is absurd, and ignores a number of critical systemic factors. Primarily, each person makes decisions largely based on emotion (98% unconscious thought by most current research), personal, cultural, religious, and ideological biases. People are greatly influenced by emotional marketing campaigns such as private school subsidy advocates have presented.
2. “Competition will make all schools better”—This absurdity ignores the systemic, irrational nature of biased selection (see #1 above) and the irrationality of any market driven by a “succeed or die” ideology (much like the subprime mortgage market). The systemic effect created by this flawed rationale has caused a great disparity of educational opportunity statewide, placed too great an emphasis on “results at any cost,” and resulted in a critical loss of resources to schools of greatest need.
3. “The private subsidy program will allow poorest children a private school education they could not otherwise afford.”—We can now see, through data and research, that the families benefitting from these subsidies are at higher income levels than their public school peers, most were already attending these private schools (and paying tuition), and that the private schools have much narrower curriculum than public schools—denying those children a broad educational opportunity.
In each of the above examples, the subsidized private school program has a negative systemic affect on the public education system, and the children it serves—the majority of the children in the state. A careful examination of the origins of this private subsidy system provides even stronger evidence that the program was created in an ideological vacuum, ignoring the long-term systemic impact now being suffered in Wisconsin.
An ideological agenda from the beginning
So it was twenty some years ago that I was working as a research assistant in two capacities: one was as a graduate student for John Witte, a UW-Madison Political Scientist evaluating the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and in the second instance, for a television production company, Progressive Communication Systems, to discover how this controversial plan was being funded. In the first case, it was fairly evident that a taxpayer-funded subsidy for students to attend private schools (and soon religious ones) was not going to make a demonstrable positive effect on public schools. Public schools then and now still serve the widest majority of America’s students. In the second case, it was fairly evident that the private subsidy program was being used as an ideological and political agenda to try to do strategic harm to the public schools.
While the program was never a viable alternative it nonetheless continued onward, mainly through the guaranteed funding of the public taxpayers and through support by right wing organizations, such as the Bradley Foundation. All of this was documented in A Matter of Fact? a public television broadcast documentary Price co-produced, and in an article he published: Secular Humanism vs. Religion: The Battle Over Vouchers in the USA. Furthermore, in a chapter in his co-edited book Defending Public Education from Corporate Takeover called Voucher Vultures by Robert Miranda, the point was made that “choice” and “vouchers” as a means to help inner city kids was a fraud, one that, as Miranda devastatingly notes, fooled liberal/progressive education reformers. “Vouchers” were even given up for dead by conservative supporters as Greg Enrig states in his 2008 article An Idea Whose Time Has Gone.
So how has it come to pass that private school subsidies are once again part of the political discussion? Having largely been made irrelevant, given No Child Left Behind (which specifically avoided mentioning voucher schools), Race to the Top (which specifically expands charter schools) and the Common Core State Standards (which applies only to traditional public schools), why have vouchers once again garnered media attention?
Good question: What good are vouchers?
In a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article, “Students lose at expense of taxpayer-funded vouchers” September 21, 2014, the respective leaders of the National Education Association and the Wisconsin Education Association Council unequivocally blame private school subsidies for draining taxpayer funds from the public schools. Most significant in this article by Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Betsy Kippers, Wisconsin Educational Association Council, are their incisive questions: What good are vouchers if they don’t improve performance? Why should tax dollars be poured into a private system that doesn’t measure performance and isn’t held accountable?
The recognition by these leaders, respectively, is that Governor Scott Walker is dead set on expanding private subsidies across the state, having received millions of dollars from “pro-voucher” organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the American Federation for Children (AFC). Walker and several of the Republican Party legislators aim to dismantle Wisconsin’s great public education system, a system once the envy of the world. Governor Walker’s anti-public education crusade has already included Act 10 which eliminated collective bargaining rights for public sector workers (teachers), and a brazen attempt to create the unaccountable, partisan, Charter School Oversight Board (which would bypass democratically-constituted, local school board decision-making). With this his resurrection-from-the-nearly-dead private school subsidy scheme, the Walker regime has made clear its contempt for public teachers, local school boards, and the public school system.
The so-called “choice” program, an experiment that had its beginning in the city of Milwaukee, has not lived up to the promise of its advocates, but further more has remained a consistent drain on the public coffers, doing effectively what the enemies of public education would have it do. Years ago, when the idea of for-profit schools and educational management organizations were floated as a legitimate idea for educational “reform” (see Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, the “bible” of the school choice movement) Milwaukee was deemed to be an opportune site for experimentation. But from the get go, critics assailed the program as smoke and mirrors, as shifting the focus from what should have been a solution to fix the problem of a lackluster school funding formula which was dependent on property taxes. Encouraged by the same organizations that advanced the private school subsidies—Milwaukee Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce—“choice” was pitched at the same time that large corporations and businesses essentially reneged on their tax obligation. Tax contributions from corporations dramatically declined as a percent of the overall budget over the last twenty + years since the subsidy scheme was hatched, largely at the behest of the Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce and the Governor Tommy Thompson administration(s). Hampered by meager budgets, cities like Milwaukee and Racine were also stuck with the so-called Qualified Economic Offer (QEO), which placed revenue caps on school spending. Thus the perfect storm occurred when increased costs and diminished revenue streams were coupled with a private school subsidy program (first in Milwaukee, now expanded to Racine) skimming off the top badly needed funds for the schools that teach underserved kids in the inner city.
The essay by García and Kippers, therefore, is timely and welcome because it indicates resurgence, a newly revived solidarity amongst teachers in opposition to private school subsidies and the corporate model of educational “reform” bent on privatization. That educational “reform” movement has co-opted elected officials, officials whom would opt to serve the big money interests like the Walton Family Foundation instead of serving the public good. This solidarity couldn’t come soon enough, as at this most precipitous moment the future of public education—ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to learn, and succeed—hangs in the balance.
The die has been cast
The private subsidy supporters know that Governor Scott Walker is their horse in the race to destroy public education. If Walker wins, private school subsidies could go statewide, and then national, as no doubt his victory will indicate a victory for privatization. His other bad ideas like breaking teacher unions, and supposedly lowering taxes by expanding TIF (tax incremental financing) shortchanging kids to the tune of a billion dollars could become part of a Republican presidential campaign platform.
But before that can happen, Walker finds himself in the throws of a tough gubernatorial campaign against challenger and former Secretary of Commerce Mary Burke. Burke is no radical, indeed her platform as an entrepreneur has been one largely to chastise the Governor for failing to deliver on his major campaign promise of delivering on the 100,000s of jobs. Burke, for her part, allows the “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program” to continue, if not sunset in the future. Yet she has categorically slammed the Governor’s plans to radically grow out his own monstrous version of the private subsidy program, “Wisconsin Choice,” taking more money still from the local school districts. His idea, of dramatic expansion of private subsidies into a statewide program—rather than the current version narrowly vies for students in Green Bay and Southeastern Wisconsin—would utterly devastate funding for the public schools and dismantle public education. The statewide private subsidy program he and his corporate backers envision would drain yet another billion dollars from an already cash strapped school funding system, a system that already appears to be unconstitutional and in need of reevaluation of the last supreme court decision (see VINCENT v. VOIGHT). With the release of Forward Wisconsin’s jarring study The New Segregation—Education Funding: A longitudinal study of Wisconsin education funding rich evidence is provided that a chasm exists between rich and poor school districts . . . and is growing. Indeed the Wisconsin Public Education Network specifically asks: “how do you propose to fund a full blown statewide voucher system that will cost hundreds of millions in tax dollars once implemented?”
A looming threat
To frame the danger properly, Wisconsin has historically been a leader, providing opportunity and academic excellence. Along with the University of Wisconsin system, state, county and communities have much to be proud of and that history once also included teachers being firmly ensconced within the middle class. Teachers are our most valuable of public servants, and deserve good benefits and a middle class income. That supposition has been questioned by the reactionary right wing, and as such, teacher salary, overall compensation and benefits has become a target of those who deem education to be too costly, and taxes to be too high. But teachers haven’t caused the high taxes, corporations moving offshore to Mexico and China have, and blaming the schools for the poor economy (since Reagan’s Nation at Risk) is a tired canard that has no bearing on reality.
Blame the banks instead. An investment in teachers and in public schools, instead of bailing out voracious speculators and venture capitalism would be the wisest investment of all, with dividends. Educated, knowledgeable and efficacious children grown to adult would be the result.
To be certain, that this dividend in Wisconsin and elsewhere has not been equitably distributed, one cannot deny, and it is a shame that only now the results are in: African-American families live in the worst housing and working conditions of the nation in Wisconsin. This is utterly shameful and of necessity must be immediately addressed.
But private school subsidies are not the fix. Historic and racialized patterns of poverty are not fixed by transferring funds from poorly resourced schools, let alone by attacking and vilifying teachers as if they were to blame for the blight and decay of our nation’s once industrious cities. Nor is throwing out a life raft, a subsidy, or charter school as a long term solution for what ails the nation. Subsidized private schools, though heralded as the means to make the public schools compete merely contribute to the systemic destruction of public education.
The reality is that the private subsidy monies, the taxpayer supported stipend, are primarily going to students who already attend private schools. And competition is not occurring, nor is it resulting in any substantive change to the overall working conditions of parents and families still reeling from decades of neglect and the recent economic recession. The schools are only the last in line, the recipients of the poverty and the decay of the city(s). Better to fix the cities, to develop government jobs programs, to fix the roads, bridges, infrastructure, to get people back to work so that money can flow and more revenue can be created to funnel back into our beleaguered communities and the schools. Begin addressing the real systemic nature of our educational and community problems.
Time for real change
As such, this is really an opportune time to finally call out the private school subsidy program for what it is: a bad idea, and one that should fade into the sunset. It is well past time to get serious about the business of saving the public schools and availing every child the freedom of opportunity a great public education provides. If we do not, for the first time in many generations, our future generations will now not have the opportunity to even know what is possible in life—unless they are lucky enough to be in the “right” school in the “right” community.
Wisconsin should send Governor Scott Walker a pink slip, and restore the billion plus dollars he took out of our community’s hands. Then we need to seriously fix the school funding formula and fully fund public education!
Todd Alan Price is the Director of Policy Studies at the National College of Education, National Louis University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Wittkopf, Chair, Forward Institute, Inc. contributed to this article. He can be reached at
Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, markets, and America’s schools. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution.
Enrig, G. (April 2008) An Idea Whose Time Has Gone: Conservatives abandon their support for school vouchers. Washington Monthly.
Jilani, Z. (MAY 21, 2011) ZAID REPORT: Meet The Billionaires Who Are Trying To Privatize Our Schools And Kill Public Education.
García, L. E. and Kippers, B. (September 21, 2014) “Students lose at expense of taxpayer-funded vouchers” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Garvey, E., Mitchell, C., Schmitz, T., Ketteler, G., & On the Earth Productions. (2000). A matter of fact. Oconomowoc, WI: On the Earth Productions, LLC.
Miranda, R. (2013) Voucher Vultures in Price, T. A., Duffy, J., & Giordani, T. Defending public education from corporate takeover. University Press of America.
Wittkopf, S. (2014) The New Segregation – Education Funding A longitudinal study of Wisconsin education funding. Forward Institute, Wisconsin Public Policy Research.