This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is out with another sensationalist headline about the ostensible cost to Wisconsin of the state’s voucher programs. And, as is often the case with such stories, important information is left out or dismissed in a story that reads almost as if it were produced by the teacher’s unions themselves. Here, we correct the record. 

The Article Vastly Overstates the Cost in State Aid of Voucher Programs.

The article quotes the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as saying that about $145 million in state aid is withheld from districts as a result of choice programs. But the reality is that school districts are able to count students enrolled in choice programs in their district enrollment. This increases the aid that the school district receives from the state for students that it does not educate who are enrolled in choice programs. This has a dramatic effect on the “cost” to school districts of the voucher program that is not incorporated in DPI’s numbers.

Earlier this year, the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) analyzed all of these factors to arrive at an estimate of the “true” cost to taxpayers of the Racine Parental Choice Program. Instead of the $18.5 million cost described by the district and sent to taxpayers in a mailer, the real cost was less than $5 million. 

While Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin was given the opportunity to make this point in the article, the fact that he was backed up by LFB on it was curiously absent. 

These “Costs” are for students the district is no longer educating.  

If we are ever going to have a true education marketplace, the narrative that the school districts ought to continue to receive resources for students they no longer educate has got to be overcome. 

We do not apply this sort of ‘logic’ in any other aspect of life under our free market system. If I am unsatisfied with the service I receive at Walmart, and choose to shop at Target, should Walmart continue to receive some of the money I spent there in the past? 

The only costs of the choice program come when a low-income family decides that their local school is not meeting their needs and the family makes an alternative decision with some of the tax money earmarked for that child’s education. 

Choice students cost $1000s less to educate, on average.  

The first point that is not made explicit in the Journal Sentinel piece is that the choice program, overall, costs $1000s less overall per student than students who attend traditional public schools. For the most recent school year, the average funding per student before taking into account federal dollars was $10,555 in public schools. In the choice program, the amount was $7,754 for a student enrolled in grades K-8 and $8,400 for a student in grades 9-12. Despite significantly lower spending, these schools achieve higher test scores, graduation rates, and produce students who are less likely to get into legal trouble

It is interesting that the relatively minuscule $350 million cost of Wisconsin’s 43,000 school choice participants generates headlines in the Journal Sentinel while the more than $6 billion spent on public school students does not. It appears that the cost of educating students only becomes a concern when that spending doesn’t go towards supporting the public school monopoly.

Let’s stop demonizing low-income families for seeking out better options for their child’s education. And let’s recognize that education funding doesn’t belong to school district bureaucrats, it belongs to families who want the best opportunities for their kids. 

Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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