Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signs the state budget while joking with children from the Boys & Girls Club of Kenosha during a private ceremony at Catalyst Exhibits Sunday, June 30, 2013 in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.
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Statewide voucher program seriously flawed
What do we make of the fact that, statewide, about two-thirds of the families who applied for school vouchers under the new statewide program already have a child in a private school? Well, one thing we'd observe is that the existence of the program did not trigger a mass exodus from the public schools. But another is that that ratio does not seem to indicate a massive pent-up demand among parents across the state for what some call "school choice."
If parents across the state were deeply unhappy with the education their kids were getting in public schools, we would expect to see a much higher ratio. And in fact, common sense and school data about districts in Wausau and north central Wisconsin show that, frankly, the argument that vouchers offer a lifeline to parents stuck in failing schools does not easily apply here. These schools do not have the horrifying dropout rates of some urban or underprivileged districts. They are not the site of rampant violence or gang activity. They simply are not failing schools.
And this points to a flaw in the new voucher program, which was originally proposed by Gov. Scott Walker to apply only to poor-performing districts. That proposal split the GOP caucus, and during negotiations around the latest state budget a compromise was struck that would expand the program statewide but on a relatively tiny scale: 500 students statewide this year and 1,000 next year.
Studies of Milwaukee's two-decade-old voucher program have not found that they lead to significant advances in student achievement. There is not much reason to believe results will be different for the statewide program. And if - based on this year's applications, at least - there isn't even a large demand for it among public-school parents, what's left is a program that appears to be mostly a state subsidy program for private school system, and one that appears to come at the expense of public schools.