Earlier this month Chris Rochester of the MacIver Institute noted the post-election reversal of Governor Tony Evers on a campaign pledge to “phase out vouchers.”
So it was not necessarily surprising that the governor avoided that issue in Tuesday’s State of the State speech.
Unsurprising, but still notable. As the governor told Mike Gousha following his November 6 election, “We have 30,000 kids” in school choice and ending it “can’t happen.”
Gousha framed his question by noting that new “report cards” from Evers’ Department of Public Instruction (DPI) showed Milwaukee choice and charter schools outranking traditional Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) system schools. That bears repeating…the report cards were from Evers’ DPI. Given that source, even rabid opponents of letting parents choose schools for their children have been quiet in the wake of the DPI report cards.
The DPI rankings are not the only news that has school choice opponents on their heels. The Racine Journal Times has exposed the fallacy behind a phony scheme to use property tax bills to illustrate the supposed extra cost of school choice programs. Researchers at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and at School Choice Wisconsin have debunked these claims on multiple occasions. Expect additional analysis on this matter to be forthcoming from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The slow but relentless growth of the statewide choice program has the most significant implications for supporters and opponents of choice. What’s happening politically is that a statewide base of support is growing. Increasingly, choice will be less of a Milwaukee/Racine issue and more of a Wisconsin issue. (Regrettably, the income threshold for eligibility for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program remains far below that which prevails in Milwaukee and Racine. And it will be several years before the enrollment cap comes off.)
Credit for the statewide program goes largely to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. In the 2013-15 legislative session Governor Scott Walker submitted a long list of choice schemes so flawed they were dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee. At the 11th hour of budget negotiations in 2013, Fitzgerald emissaries to Walker (the late Sen. Mike Ellis and Sen. Luther Olsen) floated the statewide program — however limited — as a compromise to help Walker save face.
School choice supporters, while frustrated with Walker’s tepid leadership on program expansion and financing, are now in a stronger position than they were eight years ago. They have growing evidence of program success and a gradually broadening base of political support. While this of course won’t stop dogmatic opponents from trying to use the upcoming budget process to chip away at choice and charter schools, Evers himself has sent signals that it will be a struggle. Wisconsin parents have a GOP legislature, and growing evidence, to thank for that.