by Colleen Flaherty
When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led legislature passed a budget to expand the state’s school voucher program, it was done on the basis of “school choice.” Walker and his supporters maintained that funneling taxpayer dollars into unaccountable private schools gives parents a choice to send their kids to schools they couldn’t otherwise afford.
According to the Department of Public Instruction, the voucher applications tell a different story.
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Of the students who applied for new vouchers, 67 percent of the 2,069 applications were students who were already attending private school last year without taxpayer help.
“Legislators who pushed through statewide expansion of the taxpayer-funded private school voucher program said that their intent was to give public school students options, yet today’s numbers make it clear that the expansion primarily provides financial relief to families who already send their children to private schools,” said Betsy Kippers, Racine teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
To address concerns of public money going to private schools that aren’t held to the same standards as public schools, Republicans have proposed a bill that would increase accountability and oversight for private voucher schools. According to Kippers, the bill leaves much to be desired.
“Upon initial review, educators across Wisconsin will inevitably be left wondering ‘Where is the rest of it?’ The bill does not require voucher schools to be subject to open records and open meetings law like public schools are. It does not even require educators in voucher schools to be licensed.”
Walker’s voucher program uses several pieces of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation. Kippers maintains that the GOP education overhaul is more about privatizing education and helping GOP donors, over 60 percent of whom come from outside the state of Wisconsin.
“In their rush to appease their campaign donors, pro-voucher legislators eagerly moved ahead with a statewide voucher expansion without the necessary checks and balances to ensure the program would be administered as they supposedly intended,” said Kippers.
Perhaps it made no difference to voucher supporters as long as the private voucher schools were getting paid, but it will make a difference to voters who want their taxpayer dollars to be used responsibly with accountability measures attached.
The voucher expansion will cost taxpayers tens of millions while the budget slightly increases public school funding. However, this minimal increase follows the last budget which cut $1.6 billion from public education, the fourth largest cut to K-12 schools in the country and the largest cut to education in Wisconsin’s history
“It is my hope that legislators will come forward with responsible legislation that holds private voucher schools accountable and requires them to meet the same standards that we demand of our public schools.”