"Forward" may be the official motto of Wisconsin, but Wisconsin's governor has made an alarming deal with legislative leadership that will take our state educational system backward. Wisconsin's constitutionally created secular common school system is under ruthless attack.
The budget approved by the Joint Finance Committee this week would expand Wisconsin's voucher program from two cities now to statewide. It would be the most sweeping attack on public schools in the nation.
"Taxpayer money should not be going to unaccountable private and religiously segregated schools," said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The scheme would increase voucher payments by nearly 12% for K-8 enrollees and 22% for high school enrollees, as well as creating hefty tax deductions for private (that's mostly parochial) school parents.
Republican voucher backers say they want "a voucher in every backpack." Education experts across the state have opposed creating what amounts to a second publicly funded education system. In the first and second year of the new scheme, vouchers would be limited to low-income families and to 500 students and 1,000 students respectively. After that, the caps are sure to be expanded or removed. Milwaukee's voucher program started with 341 students in 1990 and now has nearly 25,000 students, with over 21,000 of them attending religious schools.
Of the current 112 voucher schools in Milwaukee, only 16 are not affiliated with a religious denomination.
State Education Superintendent Tony Evers strongly opposes voucher expansion and warns: "Let's be clear, no cap on voucher enrollment or income limits has ever stayed in place over the past 20 years. History shows, and I predict, these caps are temporary. And, the result will be more and more funding pulled out of public school classrooms and put into private and religious schools."
Publicly funded voucher schools lack accountability measures. Voucher schools do not have to have licensed teachers, empirically based curriculum, maintain their accreditation status, or abide by public meeting and open records laws. While public schools are governed by locally elected school boards, taxpayers have no say in how voucher schools are run. Voucher schools don't have to comply with the same disability education plans that public schools must.
"Vouchers in Wisconsin should be ended, not expanded. This failed experiment threatens to destroy our secular public school system and must go no further," added Gaylor. "This is a raid on the taxpayers by religiously exclusionary parochial schools and their backers."
In Milwaukee and Racine, the only cities currently required to fund vouchers, voucher students average lower scores on state exams than their public school counterparts. Some of the lowest math and reading test scores in the state have come from Milwaukee voucher schools, with a number of schools having not a single student test proficient.
Some of these schools, like Carter's Christian Academy, teach a fundamentalist Christian curriculum. Ninety-five percent of students receive publicly funded vouchers in more than half of Milwaukee's voucher schools, and a fifth of them contain 100% voucher student enrollment.
Legislators bent on funding religion have added significant tax deductions for parents of private school students, which would include wealthy Wisconsin families. Parents of private school students could deduct up to $10,000 on state income taxes for high school tuition payments and up to $4,000 for K-8 students. This would decrease state revenue by an estimated $30 million annually.
Sen. Dale Shultz, R-Richland Center, has said the voucher expansion puts the state on a "dangerous path" toward creating a parallel school system that will take money away from public schools. "We are only one budget away from opening the floodgates,” Schultz said, referring to the likelihood that enrollment caps would be loosened. “It’s grown every single budget. By going statewide you sort of legitimize the concept.”
Let's move Wisconsin forward by stopping vouchers and by supporting public education.
Both the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate must still approve the scheme.