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Editorial: School choice a contradiction in terms

4:48 PM, Aug. 16, 2013  |  Comments
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School choice? Hardly. The expansion of school vouchers in Wisconsin represents a false choice, a point punctuated by the fact that a majority of the applicants for an expanded voucher program already attend private schools.

Vouchers are simply a transfer of public education dollars to private and religious schools with little to no oversight or accountability to the public. Republican lawmakers dropped any pretense that the expansion of the program represents a rescue of students from failing public schools. Choice had originally been sold as an alternative to the troubled Milwaukee school system, but private schools in Milwaukee that have received public dollars have done no better in boosting academic performance.

There is even less basis for an expansion in places like Oshkosh where public schools continue to perform as well or better than peers across the state, despite a double-digit increase in students coming from families in poverty.

More than 200 students applied for school vouchers - state tax dollars used to pay for private or religious school tuition - at Oshkosh's Lourdes Academy and Valley Christian School. Administrators estimated that three-out-of-four applicants already attend those schools. State-wide, of the more than 2,400 students that applied for vouchers, 67 percent already pay to attend private schools.

Legislative leaders say it was an oversight in the law that didn't give a priority to public school students, something they and Gov. Scott Walker say will quickly be remedied this fall. They are not as eager, however, to implement accountability provisions that would provide the most basic assurance to taxpayers that their dollars are being properly spent.

A bill authored by Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, the respective chairs of the Senate and Assembly education committees, would require schools participating in the voucher program to report a wide range of performance data to the state, and provides a mechanism for poor-performing schools to be kicked out of the program.

Their proposed legislation received a cool reception from legislative leaders who smart over Olsen and Kestell consulting with the Department of Public Instruction, an office given authority by the Wisconsin Constitution for overseeing education. The Associated Press reports the bill calls for giving a score to every public, charter and voucher school based on 2014 data in five categories: reading and math, achievement and growth in those areas, college and career readiness, closing student achievement and graduation rate gaps and student engagement.

Public and charter schools already provide the data, but school voucher advocates do not support the bill. Can you blame them for wanting to willingly give up a steady and growing stream of public tax money with no strings attached?

The Final Thought: School choice in Wisconsin a contradiction in terms.

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