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Democracy in the way of vouchers

5:50 PM, Jan. 19, 2013  |  Comments
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Leave it to Sen. Mike Ellis to hit the nail on the head: The expansion of school vouchers is a non-starter in northeast Wisconsin. In our view, such is the case across Wisconsin. The Senate president, in typically blunt language, called last week for local referendum votes on any expansion of the state's school voucher program outside of Milwaukee and Racine.

One can only hope his act of outspoken courage helps fuse the spine of fellow senators and pushes this partisan plum off the Republican agenda during biennium budget discussions. The school choice movement is little more than an employment agency for former Republican lawmakers who continue to push for taxpayers to foot the bill for private education. There is no evidence the voucher experiment in Milwaukee has produced results better than public schools.

Nor are voucher advocates prepared to suggest private schools operate under the same myriad of federal and state regulations Wisconsin's public schools are required by law to follow. Private and religious school choice advocates would be wise to stop courting public dollars for they may ultimately find they get the dollars - and long strings attached. Parochial schools have long and proud traditions that will continue to flourish without the deep pockets and pages of requirements of public dollars.

Last session, school choice lobbyists used their influence with Rep. Robin Vos, who chaired the Joint Finance Committee, to insert language into the budget expanding the program to Racine, Green Bay and potential districts like Oshkosh. Ellis and other lawmakers pushed back hard to limit the expansion to Racine. No one bothered to tell Green Bay school officials, and it was never clear who was calling for vouchers in the city beyond the lobbyists.

With Vos now Assembly Speaker, expect the issue to be back on the agenda. But Ellis' call certainly casts a light on an issue that is hardly on the top of anyone's list of priorities. The state took positive steps last year toward making public schools more accountable through the introduction of tougher standards and statewide report cards. Lawmakers ought to put their energies into developing more accountable, flexible and adequately funded public schools. They should develop a bi-partisan plan to tackle the crisis in Milwaukee.

More importantly, they need to get back to their well-rehearsed call for a focus on the state's economy. The only "jobs" connection evident is the ones for former Republican lawmakers. Former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who formed a lobbying firm after his loss in the GOP primary for U.S. senator last summer, registered as a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin earlier this month. He joins former Assembly Speakers John Gard and Scott Jensen in working on behalf of the industry. That gives vouchers a higher profile in the halls of power than in households across Wisconsin.

The Final Thought: School voucher expansion a non-issue for Wisconsin.

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