In an interview on January 2, Governor-elect Tony Evers said that he would like property tax bills to include the cost of the voucher program to each school district. He went on to say that Wisconsin needs to have a “good conversation about what’s involved in the voucher program.” While Evers’s policy goal here is suspect given his anti-school choice track record, we agree with him that it is high time to have an honest conversation about the voucher programs in Wisconsin.
But first, let’s start with some facts:
Students in the state’s voucher programs outperform traditional public school students. The fact that Evers claims to want an honest conversation about vouchers is particularly surprising, given that he has spent years dismissing the positive evidence surrounding the academic performance of students in school-choice programs. While test scores are certainly not all that matters, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) have consistently outperformed students in traditional public schools. Studies from the School Choice Demonstration Project as well as more recently from WILL have shown higher performance on state exams, higher graduation rates, and more college entrants.
Schools in the state’s voucher programs are safer. Schools in the MPCP have significantly lower rates of 911 calls and arrests than traditional public schools. Additionally, it is less likely that students at private schools in the MPCP will be found guilty of a crime.
School vouchers save the state money. Despite the claims of extensive cost to property-tax payers, it is important to note that the voucher programs, in aggregate, represent a savings to the state of Wisconsin. This is because students in the voucher program, unfortunately, are funded at a significantly lower level than students in traditional public schools. A fiscal analysis by EdChoice estimated that the state’s choice programs save the state more than $1,200 per student, and have saved more $340 million since the inception of school choice in 1990. These savings are curiously absent from Evers’s discussion of other fiscal effects.
More than 35,000 Students in Wisconsin Now Use a Voucher. What began as a small program in Milwaukee now serves a significant number of students across Wisconsin. All of these students have sought other opportunities because their resident public schools were not working for them, whatever the reason. Families participating in a voucher program are low-income and, without the voucher, have limited educational options available to them. When Evers bemoans the cost of vouchers, he is effectively saying that these families should be forced back into public schools and not provided the opportunity to choose the best education option for their children.
Wisconsin’s voucher programs are heavily regulated. Despite claims to the contrary by school choice opponents, Wisconsin’s voucher programs face as much, or even more, regulation than traditional public schools. Schools in the voucher program must submit to extensive annual financial audits and must maintain accreditation from a set of accrediting agencies authorized by the state. These regulations are more punitive and burdensome than anything applicable to public schools. In fact, public school districts have no similar requirement to show how taxpayer funds are being used.
Our research shows that the regulatory environment for the school choice programs does a far better job at culling poor-performing schools than does the public school regulatory environment. In the MPCP, good schools grow and bad schools shrink and, eventually, close.
We are always happy to have honest discussions with policymakers on the merits of school choice. But to this point, Evers has a strong track record of putting the interests of teachers unions before the interests of Wisconsin’s poorest kids. Perhaps his overture here is honest, but forgive us if we are doubtful.
Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.