Should We Fund Children or Buildings?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

State Senate President Mike Ellis came out again on Sunday in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s plan to expand school choice to districts with two or more failing schools. Ellis claimed on Up Front with Mike Gousha that he supported the original school choice program in Milwaukee when it only served people below the poverty line in a district that was failing. However, he now opposes the expansion of school choice, claiming it “goes beyond the poverty and beyond the failing school concept.”

This is, of course, incorrect, as it allows students to apply for choice programs in their districts if the district has two or more failing schools.

Using the Neenah School District as an example, Ellis said, “Neenah has thirteen school buildings. If two or more of those school buildings have a D or an F on their report card, under the Walker plan the entire school district is considered a failing school district.”

Of course Ellis’ objection is just absurd. Buildings don’t fail. School districts fail when they fail to teach children. If there are children that aren’t learning in the district, of course the school district is failing them regardless of the building. (By the way, Neenah is not under consideration. It’s curious Ellis didn’t use Green Bay after he called one of the schools there, “a sewer.” They currently meet the proposed criteria.)

Ellis also complained to Gousha that if a school district is failing, then students who are below the required income threshold who happen to be attending schools that are ranked high in the district can also participate in the choice lottery.

Ellis seems to believe that every student that are under the maximum household income level would want to participate in a private school choice program. If he truly believes that, it’s a poor commentary on the school district. Contrary to the example that Ellis gives, if a student is doing well in a school, regardless of the grade given to the school, it would be unlikely for the parents to move that child.

On the other hand, if a child is not doing well in a school that has been given an “A” rating by the state Department of Public Instruction, then it’s cold comfort to the parents to know that some students are succeeding when their child is not. Far better to match the student to the appropriate school than it is to worry about what the cost might be to the district.

Even if Ellis was correct that the proposed expansion of school choice might somehow block an impoverished child in a failing school from participating because of the lottery, that’s an argument against having the enrollment caps, not scrapping the choice program itself.

After all, the point of state aid to local school districts is not to build buildings, hire administrators, and to make superintendent jobs easier. The whole point of state aid is to provide the means for educating each of Wisconsin’s children.

That’s why twice per year we count the number of students in each school district to determine the level of state aid. We don’t count the number of buildings. Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay a “school flight premium” to the school that lost the child. School aid is for educating children, not for building monuments.

Besides, we already have school choice statewide. The latest MacIver Student Census shows us that 26% of children statewide exercise some form of choice and an incredible 81% of children in Milwaukee use choice in education. We have statewide open enrollment and public charter schools that allow parents an opportunity to find the best educational fit for their child. We even have online public charter schools that attract students from across the state looking for an educational alternative. One of those online charter public schools is in Ellis’ senate district in Appleton.

The reality is that school choice is a bargain for the state’s taxpayers. Ellis is correct that the voucher is only $6,442 currently. However, Wisconsin spent $11,364 per pupil in 2009-2010 according to census data. The Green Bay school district in Ellis’ district spends $11,194 per student. Meanwhile studies have shown that graduation rates are actually higher in choice schools.

Ellis even complains that the Governor’s budget contains an increase in the amount given for educational vouchers that is larger than the increase per pupil for public schools. Ellis did not tell the audience that the choice students are still much less of a burden to taxpayers than students in public education and that former Gov. Doyle targeted the Choice program while he was in office.

While Ellis complains that there is a lack of local input by local school districts about allowing school choice, Ellis and other state legislators are the ones responsible for the stewardship of state tax dollars that are allocated for education. Ellis’ plan to hold referendums in individual school districts to see if they wish to participate in the choice programs would be an abdication of that responsibility and would only invite the mass chaos of Madison last year to every community under consideration.

Wisconsin should watch the Republicans in the state Senate, who now have an opportunity to change from an antiquated system of moving children through a failing mass production model of education to one that allows for meeting the child’s individual educational needs.

We need to ask our legislators why, under the current system, funding a school building is more important than funding an individual child, no matter where he or she goes to find the best education to meet their needs. Ellis stamping his feet and complaining that it’s just not fair to the buildings is not a good enough answer.