It’s become an annual tradition. In her regular efforts to damage Wisconsin’s school choice programs, Representative Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) has requested information from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) on the “cost” of the state’s voucher programs to public schools. LFB, as they always do, dutifully answered Pope’s question without going beyond its direct scope. They reported a cost of $192 million to the state from students using a voucher to attend private schools in Racine, Milwaukee and around the state on a voucher and independent charter schools.
Pope’s press release was picked up by News 8 in La Crosse, whose report on the LFB memo included no additional nuance to help the reader understand the bigger picture. Here, we correct the record.
First, it is important to note that spending on school choice represents a minuscule share of the state’s education spending. For fiscal year 18-19, Wisconsin spent $5,899,757,400 in aid to local school districts according to LFB. Spending on school choice was $192 million, or about three percent of that total. To make the claim that school choice is undermining public school spending is one of the biggest fallacies regularly repeated by choice opponents.
Perhaps the most misleading aspect of Pope’s summary of the information is in the $42 million reduction that is attributed to Milwaukee. Pope presents this as if this is continual reduction that requires Evers’ extremist position of capping enrollment in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to address.
In reality, this reduction is already disappearing over time. Indeed, quoting Pope’s own LFB memo “Under Provisions of 2013 Act 20, (the percentage of this aid reduction) will be reduced by 3.2 percentage points each year, until no aid reduction is made beginning in 2024-25.” In other words, the legislature has already taken steps to reduce by $42 million the aid reduction that Pope is discussing, yet this appears nowhere in her press release.
That aid reductions should occur for students that a district is no longer educating seems to be common sense. Districts that have students whose families make the decision to attend a private school that works better for them should not still see the school they left rewarded with tax dollars earmarked for that student. As we have noted on several occasions, Pick and Save does not continue to receive money from you if you choose to shop at Aldi. Pope believes public schools should be exempt from the performance-improving benefits of competition. We do not. Moreover, districts have the ability to raise property taxes to make up for the loss of state aid, and many do, for better or worse.
Also neglected from Pope’s press release is the reality that school choice saves Wisconsin money overall. Students in independent charter schools and those using a voucher are funded at a substantially lower level than students in traditional public schools throughout the state. Independent charter schools receive $8,619 per student and voucher students receive $7,754 (K8) or $8,400 (9-12) per student. Public school students are funded at a rate more than $2,000 higher on average throughout Wisconsin. According to recent research from EdChoice, this leads to a savings of $800-1,200 per student in the choice program. Over the lifetime of the programs, Wisconsin has realized a benefit of more than $345 million from school choice. I’d wager some of that boon was poured back in to the public school system.
Representative Pope has long been an opponent of allowing low-income families the opportunity to attend better schools, and she has no doubt been emboldened by having someone who shares her beliefs in the Governor’s Mansion. It is incumbent on members of the media not to be willing participants in this growing assault on educational options and to provide readers will a full enough picture to form their own opinions.
Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.