By CJ Szafir and Will Flanders

This week is National School Choice Week, a nationwide celebration about giving families the freedom to choose their own school whether it is traditional public, public charter, private choice, virtual school, or homeschool. More than 30,000 events will be held across the country heralding how school choice can give all families – regardless of zip code – the opportunity to send their child to the school that is best for them.

On Tuesday the Assembly discussed a resolution which would declare this week to be School Choice Week in Wisconsin.  While this was meant to be a bipartisan, feel-good moment that everyone can rally around, the “Status Quo” caucus of the Democratic Party just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to score political points with their activist base. In a nearly 30-minute rant session which Nancy Pelosi would be proud of, several Democratic Representatives blamed school choice for all of Wisconsin’s education, economic, and societal woes.

Here are the six most outrageous things the Status Quo caucus said on the floor (and hat tip to the representatives – Jagler, Rodriguez, etc – who called them out):

(1) State Representative Chris Taylor: “I cannot join in supporting this resolution or celebrating private school vouchers because this scheme does drain millions and millions of dollars from our public schools.”

One would think a state legislator who has voted on multiple state budgets, such as Rep. Taylor, would know that state funding for the voucher programs constitutes 2.4 percent of all K-12 education spending in the state. A drop in the bucket.  

Beyond the hyperbole, she should also understand that public schools end up with more money per student when a student leaves for a choice school (admittedly this is bizarre and probably not ideal). The reason this happens is because public schools are still allowed to count students who leave for a choice school in their revenue limit calculations. It’s analogous to Walmart still getting paid for a consumer who decides to shop at Target. While the school district does lose the portion of this funding that goes to the choice school, they are still able to pocket a portion of the revenue.

(2) Rep. Taylor: “You all said they [vouchers] would improve academic performance and graduation rates of low-income kids in Milwaukee. But now we have decades of data that show otherwise. We don’t have any definitive, rigorous peer-review research – and I’m not talking about research from right-wing think tanks that espouse mostly uncheck propaganda  – I’m talking about rigorous, academic peer-reviewed research showing that vouchers have improved academic performance or graduation rates.”

Hold on, ring-wing think tanks that espouse propaganda…she’s talking about us! Yes, it is true we are right-wing. And it is true we study school choice and our research, at times, shows the benefits of school choice. But it’s also sad in this era of partisanship that one has to denigrate research solely based on the author’s ideology.  

That aside, some of Dr. Flanders’ work has been peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal.

Right-wing think tanks aside, the critique of “no definitive peer-review research that shows school choice benefits” is either: 1) lazy or 2) anti-science. It has to be one or the either.  

There are a very large number of studies in peer-reviewed, academic journals that highlight the positive effects of school choice on the specific topics that she mentions, and even some specifically focused on Milwaukee. For example, a 2012 study that appeared in the journal Policy Studies—hardly a right-wing publication—found 4 percent higher graduation rates in schools participating in MPCP relative to traditional public schools.  

To make it easy for legislators such as Rep. Taylor, EdChoice has a comprehensive overview of the sound, peer-reviewed studies on school choice, many of which find positive effects on academic achievement.  

(3) Rep. Fred Kessler: “For many years . . . we have asked for uniform testing so that parents can actually make an intelligent choice.  Every time we have offered those amendments to any bill we have been turned down . . . they don’t want parents to make intelligent choices.”

It is Back to the Future for Kessler who must have spoken to the Assembly through a time machine. Private schools in the choice program participate in the same tests that students in public schools take, and have done so since the 2011-2012 school year. Indeed, choice schools now receive a report card score on the same scale as traditional public schools. While we would agree that steps could be taken to make it easier for parents to find information about all schools, uniform testing is already in place.

(4) Rep. Jonathan Brostoff: “I cannot celebrate this resolution because it marks a terrible day in our state’s history.”

A terrible day? One wonders if Brostoff is referring to the 1997 Super Bowl? The Milwaukee riots or Teddy Roosevelt being shot? Jeffrey Dahmer?  

But no. He is referring, presumably, to the enactment of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which has given tens of thousands of children a better education. A terrible day indeed.

(5) Rep. Brostoff: “[voucher schools are] continuously lining the pockets of for-profit institutions at the expense of everyone else.”

This is the classic attack of “school choice” enriches private, for-profit institutions. But if it is as lucrative as Rep. Brostoff confidently declares, then why aren’t hedge funds and wealthy investors from Wall Street jumping in on this financial opportunity? Is he implying that one can make a high return on investment by purchasing shares of St. Marcus Lutheran Schools (note: one cannot do that though you can make a charitable donation).     

We expect better from the Assemblyman whose district includes the offices of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

(6) Rep. Christine Sinicki: “You all know where I stand on voucher schools, the lack of accountability..”

In summoning her inner George Costanza (it’s not a lie….), Rep. Sinicki repeats a talking point that is flat-out wrong. Far from being unaccountable, private schools in the voucher program face regular audits, are required to administer state tests, and must maintain accreditation among many other things.  Indeed, some argue that the Milwaukee choice program suffers due to overregulation.  

Last year, we co-authored a report with School Choice Wisconsin that detailed the extensive accountability regulations that schools in the Wisconsin voucher programs must follow. Our study also shows how the current regulatory regime is effective at pushing poor performing schools out and helping good performing schools grow. While the choice sector has its poor performers like every other sector in Wisconsin, to say that choice schools are unaccountable is ridiculous.  

Let’s be clear. School choice should be a bipartisan issue, as it is in many states and was during the founding of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program with Governor Tommy Thompson, Rep. Polly Williams, and Howard Fuller. And there are Democrats in the capitol now – such as Rep. Jason Fields – who will stand up for kids in all schools.  

But the Democratic Party would be wise to distance themselves from the Status Quo caucus. They are intellectually dishonest in their policy arguments and bash popular programs used by more than 74,000 students (as noted here) – a number which will continue to grow.  

Fortunately, the state legislature did pass the resolution declaring it School Choice Week. Hopefully next year it’s not as contentious.  

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
CJ Szafir is the Executive Vice President for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
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