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Other view: Expanding voucher schools not right move

8:32 PM, Feb. 11, 2013  |  Comments
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A year and a half ago, a provision was snuck into the state budget bill at the last minute that established a formula to expand the voucher school program beyond Milwaukee and Racine.

The provision would have brought a voucher program to several districts, including Green Bay, as well as set the stage for programs in the near future in other districts, including Menasha, Appleton and other Fox Cities districts.

But, led by efforts from Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, a law was passed to negate the provisions.

Now, with Gov. Scott Walker working on his budget proposal for the next two years, voucher school expansion is again an issue.

Voucher schools allow students to attend private schools on the state dime. The state has long had a voucher program in Milwaukee for low-income families, which was expanded in Milwaukee and expanded to Racine in the last budget.

Voucher-school supporters, using former legislative leaders as lobbyists, are pushing hard to add programs in the state.

Walker has delivered mixed messages on the subject. He told a group in California that he would advocate strongly for expansion but has been less strident speaking in-state. In his State of the State address, he talked both about offering more alternatives to "failing" schools yet also giving "failing" schools more resources to improve. He also told Gannett Wisconsin Media in December that he would only support expansion if there were "tremendous public support" in communities being considered.

There are several problems with voucher school expansion that state residents need to be aware of before well-heeled and well-connected expansion proponents push it through the Legislature.

? There's no way an expansion plan should be part of the budget bill. It's policy - and it's a big enough and divisive enough issue that it deserves a full debate in the capitol, not as part of a massive budget bill that has to pass at some point.

? Milwaukee and, some would contend, Racine are unique situations with problems that go far beyond their school districts. It can be argued that they require the extreme option that voucher schools really are. There isn't the same level of dysfunction in other cities, such as Green Bay. And there's a serious question about whether those communities even want a voucher program.

Ellis has proposed that voucher school expansion only be allowed through a petition process and a referendum vote in a school district. That should be required, as a minimum, and fits in with Walker's philosophy.

? The real issue, though, is that voucher expansion shouldn't be allowed at all. Taking money away from struggling schools isn't going to make them better. And, as studies in Milwaukee have shown, voucher-school students don't perform academically any better than public-school students.

Voucher schools started as a remedy for kids from the lowest-income families. But voucher school proponents are after a lot more. The income eligibility level in Milwaukee already has been raised and there was a proposal in the last budget talks to eliminate it altogether, which drew criticism from some of those who originally pushed for the program.

If the ultimate goal of voucher school supporters is for every family, no matter their income, to be able to send their kids to private school using tax dollars, the state has no way to afford it. If all 140,000 students in private schools received the $6,440 of the voucher, it would cost the state an extra $900 million per year. And there's a proposal to raise the voucher amount by $850 per student in the next budget.

Let's be perfectly clear about this: Wisconsin cannot afford two parallel school structures - a public school system, which is constitutionally mandated for those who profess to care about the state constitution, and a private school system operating without the same mandates as the public schools.

And all of this talk about "failing" schools misses an important point. There's a strong correlation between the schools considered to be "failing" in the state's new report card system and the income level of the schools' communities.

Gene Glass, a researcher with the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center, has broken down the state's report card system and wrote in the Washington Post, "What emerges from this dog's breakfast of numbers? A measure of the wealth of the community in which the school is located. ? So what are the teachers and administrators of Wisconsin's public schools accountable for? Increasing the wealth in their communities? Increasing every child's IQ by 25 points? What we are learning and relearning time and again in education research is that poverty trumps many things: good teaching, and intelligent administration, to name just two."

So is the school really failing? Or are its results more a product of its environment? Or have we failed to address the problems of that environment?

That's where Walker's right. The state can find ways to help those schools and its teachers educate those students better and overcome their obstacles.

That's a much better use of tax dollars than to appease groups that seemingly want more public schools to fail.

- Appleton Post-Crescent

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