On February 11th, 2011, teachers across this state received startling news. The Wisconsin State Journal headline on this date read, “Walker to propose stripping collective bargaining rights from state workers.” Just a little more than two years later, daily headlines show signs of further turbulence. Governor Walker’s current budget proposal includes the expansion of taxpayer-funded, private school vouchers to several districts in Wisconsin including Madison. The scope of the latest attack is not limited to schools, but extends to every student, family, labor Union, and community. It is an attack on the prosperity and well-being of the state of Wisconsin.
Our public schools have spent the last two decades doing more with less. Kerry Motoviloff (Madison Teachers, Inc. president) explains, “Teachers have been advocating for and offering creative responses and programming ideas for the many and complex issues we face daily in the schools. Simply put, they have not been funded.”
Both the Kenosha Unified Board of Education and the Madison Board of Education passed resolutions against voucher expansion. These resolutions lay out the damaging effect that vouchers have on our public schools. The unanimously passed resolution by the Madison Board decrees, “the implementation of a voucher program that takes any financial resources away from public schools is unacceptable.”
Voucher programs have not raised student achievement. In fact, because of lack of accountability and necessary measures of progress, charter schools and other private voucher schools are less likely to provide students with complete school experiences that serve the students’ needs.
According to John Wedge (Director, Capital Area Uniserv North, WEAC), “Voucher supporters say their goal is providing successful options, but there is no evidence to back them up. Studies consistently show that students in voucher schools perform about the same or below their public school peers. Accountability should be the first priority for students.” He follows up with a critical question, “How does it benefit Wisconsin’s students to pour nearly $100 million in additional tax dollars to fund private schools that the Governor has himself admitted are unaccountable?”
Voucher schools are also less likely to provide students with experiences that focus on the arts and kinesthetic learning. According to a report by the nonpartisan group, Public Policy Forum, one-third of schools in Milwaukee’s voucher programs do not have art, music, or gym classes.
The Governor has also proposed $21 million for special needs vouchers. This money can be handed out to any student legally receiving special educations services, regardless of their family’s income. “Special needs vouchers are a false choice for parents of children with disabilities,” explains Lisa Pugh, an MMSD parent. “Not only do parents lose essential rights to a quality education – like the right to qualified staff, therapies and assistive technology- but this proposal is extremely harmful to local public schools. We know voucher schools will not be equipped to educate students with the most significant disabilities who will remain in public schools that are further drained of resources.”
Voucher schools do not operate under the same rules and guidelines as our public schools. MMSD parent, Anna Moffit understands this difference. “Although my son is not able to share with me how his day goes at school, I know that when he is in his public school there are legal protections and a constitutional guarantee that he must receive a free and appropriate public education. This promise or protection does not exist in a private or parochial school. Under the special needs voucher plan, our son’s only “school choice” is to keep his constitutional rights or forfeit them for a reduced tuition at a private school.”
Charter and private Voucher schools can reject special-needs voucher students or students who do not meet their academic or behavioral criteria. In this way, the students with the most significant needs are turned away and funneled back into our public school system.
The students most likely to benefit from an expanded voucher system are those who are already enrolled in a private school. When vouchers were expanded to Racine, almost half of the students who accepted public money for a private education were those who were already attending a private school.
According to Board of Education candidate, Thomas J Mertz, “Vouchers remove public control and destroy the very idea of the common, as in ‘common schools’ and ‘the common good.’ This is the ideological purpose.” It is a purpose that has ramifications in our community, a community that relies on our public schools to provide knowledgeable citizens and a skilled workforce.
Our public tax dollars are earmarked for this purpose, because our public schools provide a service for the betterment of our community. Not only would the expansion of vouchers channel public money to private schools, it could undoubtedly increase our taxes. The Madison School Board laid out the numbers, using Madison as an example, in a recent statement.
“If the Governor’s proposal had been in effect this year and 50 students from Madison schools had transferred to private schools using vouchers, the private schools would have received between $7,000 and $8,000 per student, but Madison’s state aid would have decreased by about $900,000, or nearly $18,000 for each of the 50 voucher students. To avoid cuts in programming, our property taxes would have to go up in order to pay for parents to send their children to private schools.”
Wisconsin has a long tradition of excellence in education. Its graduation rate is second in the nation. An investment in our public schools is an investment in our community as students become business owners, workers, and local leaders.
Public voucher advocates do not simply argue for vouchers, but they argue against Labor Unions. In a recent Capital Times article, Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation of Children, declares that “the political arm of the teachers union is self-protecting.” The organization Chavous speaks for is strongly pro-school choice and has contributed heavily to Wisconsin politicians. Claims like this are dangerous to all Unions. This anti-Union sentiment creates a false dichotomy in which the voice of Labor is pitted against the greater good. Chavous ignores the discernable fact that teachers Unions are democratically run by the teachers themselves, whose obvious goal is to create first-rate public schools that serve all of our students. Allowing teacher Unions to be the scapegoat, moves us farther away from the true mission of all Labor Unions, to create better working and learning conditions for all segments of our society.
Two years ago at a public hearing, former teacher and current School Board member, Marjorie Passman painted a compelling choice for the future of public education. Our future could include “a mass of private Voucher Schools filled with uncredentialed teachers and staff, unrestricted in curriculum and educational philosophy,” while those turned away from Voucher Schools “return to the dying embers of our public schools that have had essential funding drained from them.” In this system, you would have “the poor paying for the rich to attend private school.” Or, by investing in our public schools, we could have the alternative – schools that “unify a diverse population” and “improve social conditions.” For public school advocates everywhere, the choice is obvious. A stance against voucher programs is an investment in our public schools, our students, and our community.