By Christian D'Andrea MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst
On November 16, the Assembly Education Committee approved AB 314 on a 6-3 vote, a proposal that will derail school choice expansion for the foreseeable future. This comes less than a year after plans for expansion led to the creation of a Racine voucher program and a potential move out to Green Bay.
So what spurred the sudden change of heart?
Politics. Republican lawmakers – a group that have been responsible for the support and growth of school vouchers in Milwaukee for more than two decades now – are the ones bringing this legislation to freeze school choice to the table. Senate President Mike Ellis has been the vocal leader of a coalition of politicians from both sides of the aisle. In the Assembly Education Committee, only Representatives Jeremy Theisfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater), and Don Pridemore (R-Hartford) voted against the measure. Republicans make up seven members of the 11 person committee.
The two parties have met in the middle to limit school choice and take educational freedom out of the hands of parents across Wisconsin. The freeze was a concession made back in the spring to help bring the two sides closer during the frenzied budget debate. In exchange for less resistance towards the 2011-2013 planned slate of reforms, the battle to expand the country’s first modern school choice program – and potentially the addition of special needs scholarship programs - would be stalled indefinitely.
This may develop into an even bigger problem thanks to the cautious atmosphere that is primed to grip the Capitol in the midst of recall elections. Pundits in Madison are skeptical that any significant work will take place in the statehouse thanks to Wisconsin's brewing political turmoil. If so, this will make the trade-off of educational options for a sliver of diplomacy even more lopsided in the wake of inaction.
This means that a parent triggered choice program in Green Bay – where families would decide whether or not they wanted vouchers in their city – has gone from being steps away from a political reality to a legislative burial ground. It means that potential programs in places like Kenosha and Appleton have been squashed before families got a chance to voice their opinion on them. Most importantly, it means that students who can’t afford options other than their local public schools can end up stuck in a failing institution that can’t properly serve them.
Striking down the expansion of school choice may have been a necessary concession to grease the wheels of progress when it came to last spring’s budget. However, it did so by swallowing up the voices of families across Wisconsin. It put a vise around the options that children will have throughout the state. It limited the chances that Wisconsin’s students have to thrive in the classroom.
This moratorium on school choice may have solved an immediate problem, but it will help to perpetuate a growing one. The next few years represented an excellent opportunity to reform and strengthen school choice in Wisconsin by building off of the experiences and correcting the mistakes of Milwaukee. Instead, students in the Badger State will be stuck thanks to political rhetoric.