Republicans are touting the education package that passed the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Monday as the greatest news since Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris. The budget increases the per-pupil expenditure by $404 over the next two years, requires referendums to be held at set times of the year and raises the household income threshold for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to 220 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.
That’s a long way from what could have been a huge year for education reform.
Last year at this time there was talk that the Wisconsin legislature would consider Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs. These would have changed the face of education in Wisconsin by allowing parents to choose how the money being allocated to educate their children would be spent. ESAs would have changed the debate in Wisconsin with education dollars following the education of the child rather than funding school systems.
But like Lucy Van Pelt and the football, that hope of education reform was yanked away when Governor Scott Walker unveiled a state budget that included practically nothing for education reform, just a bigger checkbook for education spending. There wasn’t even an effort to close the spending gap between schools in the state’s school choice programs and public schools.
We were teased again when it was hoped that the state would at least even out eligibility for the state’s three major school choice programs. It would have been a small victory, but there is no reason why the household income threshold should be 300 percent of the federal poverty line in Milwaukee and Racine Counties but only 185 percent in the rest of the state. The legislative compromise of 220 percent for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program only continues to breed resentment towards school choice programs as parents around the state legitimately ask, “Why aren’t my kids eligible for school choice but somebody else’s kids in Milwaukee are eligible?”
So while Republican legislators and the governor’s office celebrate how much money they’re throwing away on public schools, a major opportunity for real education reform has been lost. Wisconsin Republicans may never have the majorities again that they have right now.
If Republicans are not going to be bold education reformers when they have these majorities, then they will never be able to make education a winning conservative issue.
It’s not as if Democrats are going to thank Republicans for practically doing nothing to expand school choice. They’re going to attack Republicans for not spending enough money because there is never enough money that can appease them and the teachers unions. The Democrats are also going to attack Republicans for spending any money on school choice, which the Democrats call “racist” (even though it currently serves mostly minority students) and an attempt to privatize public schools.
This education budget is not smart politics in the long term, it’s not smart public policy, and it’s a huge disappointment to those who back Republican candidates expecting real education reform. Republican legislators are celebrating, but we give them a D grade on this education budget. D for dunce.