School voucher plan a political placebo

8:52 PM, Jul. 23, 2013  |  Comments
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Gov. Scott Walker suggests he won't pursue expansion of the private school voucher program in future years unless it proves to be successful.

Count that as a political placebo. It seems aimed at muffling some of the political noise over the statewide expansion of the program. In the last school year the program sent state money to private schools in Racine and Milwaukee.

Walker's initial budget plan would have expanded it to nine more school districts. The Republican-controlled Legislature made it statewide but limited the number of additional students to be included in the next two years.

Waiting for results sounds like a fair way to move, but, as usual, the devil is in the details.

Walker and Republican legislators used research paid for by the same special-interests groups that supported Republican candidates as they pushed for expansion of the voucher program.

Critics contend the school-choice project at the University of Arkansas was paid by voucher-expansion advocates. A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said individuals with ties to the foundation funding the Arkansas study had given more than $830,000 in campaign donations to legislators, most of them Republicans.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending in Wisconsin elections, said the donations have made voucher proponents "major players" in state politics.

"It's no coincidence that they (the Arkansas study) were chosen to conduct the study," McCabe said.

Patrick Wolf, the lead researcher at Arkansas, said the funding had no impact on his study. He said he wouldn't work with any organization that tried to influence the results of the research.

Earlier this month an article by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism raised questions about financing and the "success" issue of choice schools funded by the vouchers.

That report cited a kindergarten pupil who was first enrolled in a Catholic school in Milwaukee. But the six-year-old had anxiety, and her mother said she eventually was no longer welcome at the school. The child was sent back to a Milwaukee public school where she received special education help for the anxiety.

The Catholic school principal said "every decision was made in the very best interest of the children with mutual agreement of our school leadership and the parent." The child's mother said it wasn't her decision and she "didn't have an option."

The Investigative Journalism Center report noted the Catholic school had received a $6,442 state taxpayer-funded voucher for the child's enrollment, but Milwaukee public schools got no state help for taking her through the rest of the school year.

In the 2012-2013 school year nearly 25,000 Milwaukee students were in the program at a cost to the state of $155 million. The Racine program served about 500 students at a cost of $3.2 million.

The third Friday in September is the day that determines how much funding a private school will get from the voucher program. The journalism center's report said Milwaukee schools receive "cast off" pupils after that date.

The Investigative Journalism Center is housed on the University of Wisconsin campus. Republican legislators added a budget provision effectively kicking it off the Madison campus. But the resulting press furor led Walker to veto the move.

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