Sunday, February 12, 2012
Gov. Walker privileges private voucher schools and once again breaks the public trust
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues to promote the privatization of public education while refusing to hold voucher and semi-private charter schools accountable.
On Feb. 9, Gov. Walker released a new “Education Reform” bill (Senate Bill 461) that reneged on previous promises to include all schools receiving public dollars in a statewide accountability system.
Most observers had expected the law to include a common report card for public schools, private voucher schools and charter schools. That accountability provision was pulled at the last minute, apparently under pressure from voucher and charter school lobbyists.
Tony Evers, State Superintendent of the DPI, criticized Walker’s backtracking. “This missed opportunity is more than a step backward,” he said.
Last July, Walker co-authored an opinion with Evers in which he said “that every school enrolling publicly funded students - traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools in choice programs - should be part of this new accountability system.”
Walker repeated that pledge last month in his Jan. 25 State of the State speech when he said, “Every school that receives public funds – be it a traditional public school, a charter school or a choice school – will be rated by a fair, objective and transparent system.”
A few days after Walker released his truncated legislation, the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum issued a research brief detailing the private voucher schools’ expansion, thanks to Walker’s initiatives last spring. (Walker lifted the cap on voucher enrollment, allowed families earning up to 300% of the poverty level to receive vouchers, expanded vouchers beyond Milwaukee to include the city of Racine, and permitted high schools to charge additional tuition to higher-income families. See Barbara Miner's, "Take a Stand Against Vouchers.")
The forum’s brief, “Significant Growth in School Choice,” noted that Wisconsin taxpayers are spending an additional $14.2 million this year on the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program. This contrasts sharply to the cut of approximately $84 million of state aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools for the same school year. (Overall, Walker cut $840 million statewide in funding to public schools last year, while significantly expanding the private voucher school program.)
The brief also reported that most of the new students enrolling in voucher schools were already enrolled in private schools, underscoring that the voucher program is not about increasing options but funneling public dollars into private institutions.
The Public Policy Forum based its data on surveys of voucher schools (five schools refused to return any information) and from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Among its findings:
• 2,200 additional students entered the Milwaukee voucher program this year and “most of the new voucher users appear to have already been enrolled in a private school.” This brings the total of Milwaukee students receiving public tax dollars to attend private schools to 23,198.
• The additional cost this year to tax payers for the expansion of Milwaukee program was $14.2 million. The new private voucher program in Racine cost over $330,000 and is expected to expand significantly when enrollment caps are eliminated in the next two years. The total cost of the two programs will be $150.9 million.
• Religious schools enroll 85% of all voucher students, at a total cost to the public of $128.3 million.
• “At no grade level did voucher students, on the whole, out-perform MPS students in either reading or math.” The brief described a “wide variance in performance” among the voucher schools “with a handful comparing favorably to MPS and many more having proficiency rates far lower.”
Unfortunately, the Public Policy report does not mention special education, long recognized as an essential issue in safeguarding the rights of all students. Approximately 1.6% of the private voucher school students are classified as special needs students, compared to more than 19% of MPS students. It’s a glaring, and disturbing omission, akin to researchers in the 1960s neglecting to mention racial disparities.
Throughout our nation’s history public schools have been the corner stone of our political democracy. The stronger, the more inclusive, and the more democratic public schools are, the stronger our democracy. Walker’s privileging of private schools over public and democratically controlled schools is one more reason we need to recall him.
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For a concise summary of the Milwaukee Voucher Program as it relates to issues of class and race in Milwaukee, see Barbara Miner’s essay, “MPS at the Crossroads.”