While some of Governor Tony Evers’ comments about choice and charter schools following his election have been conciliatory, his first public action regarding these schools is anything but. According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this morning, Evers will seek to cap enrollment in voucher schools while placing a moratorium on the expansion of independent charters.
Each of these moves would only serve to limit educational options for Wisconsin’s families least able to access alternatives to failing neighborhood schools.
The track record is clear and no longer debatable: independent charter schools and schools in the voucher program offer better options for students in terms of test scores and graduation rates. Participants are even less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. Vouchers schools like Divine Savior Holy Angels and Sheboygan County Christian School are among the highest performing schools in the state, when factoring the low-income students they educate. Independent charters Milwaukee Collegiate Academy and Rocketship Southside Community Prep are similarly ranked. To tell families that these options are closed to them because they didn’t get in line fast enough would be immoral.
And while these proposals might not immediately end access to these alternatives, as Evers threatened to do during the campaign, they may cause the programs to wither on the vine over time. Our research shows that private schools in the voucher program are more responsive to market forces than public schools — good schools grow and bad schools close over time. An enrollment cap on the program would short circuit this process, as high-performing schools would lack the free capacity to expand. The same logic applies to independent charter schools. High quality charters that want to open a new campus, or passionate educators with a great new concept for a school will see their notions snuffed out in the name of protecting the traditional public school monopoly.
These ideas become even more untenable when one considers the justification of cost savings. The Evers administration claims that this plan would result in $3 million in savings, but it is unclear where or how that figure was arrived at. Students in the voucher programs and independent charters throughout Wisconsin are funded at a significantly lower level than public school students. While students in public schools received $10,555 in state and local aid on average during the last school year, independent charter students received $8,188 per student. Students in choice schools received $7,754 for K-8 and $8,400 for K-12. These tremendous disparities in funding have led to estimates from EdChoice that school choice saves between $820 and $1,202 per student.
As was noted in the Journal Sentinel, it is a population of low-income, predominantly minority students who will be hurt by these policies. According to the most recent data from the Department of Public Instruction, 50 percent of students in independent charters are African American on average, and 34 percent are Hispanic. 79 percent come from low-income backgrounds. These are not individuals who can afford to move to another area to access a better school. The question must be asked: why does Evers want to eliminate the only path to options for these families?
Perhaps this is the proof that Evers is more interested in protecting the interests of teachers unions than in producing an educational environment that is “pro-kid” across the board. It is incumbent legislators to protect the interests of Wisconsin families who are desperate for alternatives to local schools that don’t work for them.
Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.