Voucher floodgates would destroy public schools, enrich parochial at taxpayer expense

In early March, FFRF blasted a budget proposal by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to eliminate the enrollment cap and the low-income requirement for participation in the Milwaukee school voucher program.

Wisconsin is one of several states entertaining unprecedented voucher school proposals which disproportionately benefit religiously segregated schools.

“If enacted, Walker’s voucher proposals would ultimately destroy the dream of our common schools — secular public education in Wisconsin,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Article X, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution establishes “district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein.”

“Parents may choose to send their children to parochial schools, but all citizens should not be forced to support those religiously segregated schools,” Gaylor said, noting that the Catholic Conference of Bishops has waged an unending campaign demanding since the 1880s to force taxpayers to support parochial education. The “choice” program has been a windfall for Catholic schools in Milwaukee and for Lutheran and nondenominational evangelicals.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court disastrously approved the choice program, which includes religious schools, in 1998. Limited to low-income children who live in Milwaukee and attend city schools, the program and its expenses have increased yearly. Private, overwhelmingly religious schools receive $6,442 from the state for each voucher student. That money is subtracted from aid to Milwaukee public schools.

More than 20,000 children are enrolled in the Milwaukee voucher program for 2010-11. Roughly 80% of about 100 voucher schools are religious. St. Anthony Catholic School enrolls more than 1,400 voucher students and Messmer High (Catholic) has close to 1,000. Other religious schools include Believers in Christ Christian Academy, Carter’s Christian Academy, Yeshiva Elementary School, Word of Life Evangelical Lutheran School and 22 schools whose names are prefaced by “Saint.”

Walker’s personal religious views are Christian evangelical. At his Inauguration Day prayer breakfast, Walker said: “I’m proud to say I’m a born-again Christian. I hope you appreciate the fact that it is not freedom from religion, it is freedom from a state religion that we celebrate. The great creator, no matter who you worship, is the one from which our freedoms are derived, not the government.”

Walker’s proposal would open up the program to any students in Milwaukee, even from wealthy families, who wish to attend religious or private schools at taxpayers’ expense. (A student currently attending a private school this year would be ineligible for the program next year.) It would potentially generate huge revenues for parochial and other private schools, which could charge tuition to families above what the state would pay if the family income is 3.25 times the poverty level.

Walker would remove a recent requirement that students in choice schools take state tests, enacted to try to measure whether the program has improved achievement. At the end of March, state test scores showed voucher students scored lower in reading and math proficiency than public school students.

While Walker’s budget would decrease funding to all public schools, Milwaukee’s private school voucher program could see huge infusions of state money.

A Republican Assembly leader announced plans for expansion of Milwaukee’s voucher program to other school districts in the state.

Freedom From Religion Foundation