Some Senators Have Misplaced Fears on School Choice

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

So why are some state senators so afraid of expanding the private school choice option? On Up Front with Mike Gousha this week, Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca repeated State Senator Mike Ellis’ claim that eight or nine Republican state senators are opposed to the Governor Scott Walker’s proposed expansion of school choice in the state budget.

We still don’t know who those senators are, or how Ellis can justify making his claim, but if there are any senators who fear expanding the private school choice option, their fears are misplaced.

Walker has proposed expanding the private school choice option to those districts with two or more schools earning a D or F grade. That means expansion to nine more school districts: Kenosha, Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Madison, Beloit, Waukesha, Sheboygan, West Allis, and Superior.

In addition, the governor has proposed increasing the amount of the voucher parents can use to send their children to private schools. Under the current voucher program, that amount is $6442. The governor’s budget proposal increases that to $7000, $7800 for high school students.

Critics, such as state Senator Luther Olsen, complain that the increase in funding for private educational vouchers is more than the increase for public schools. That is incorrect. State funding for public schools would increase by $129 million. The school voucher increase would only cost the state an additional $73 million, underscoring what a bargain the voucher program is educationally.

School choice expansion opponents are basing their claim that voucher students are getting more money on figuring the increase on a per student basis. In that sense, students receiving educational vouchers are getting more of an increase. But that’s because they start at a much lower amount at $6442. Wisconsin will still be spending over $11,300 per pupil (according to the latest census figures) for public education when we are spending at a minimum 31% less per student for private school vouchers.

Furthermore, educational choice expansion opponents undermine their own arguments by using per student numbers. They are reminding the public that state expenditures on a per pupil basis are done that way because the goal of the state money is to educate children. We don’t count school buildings in a district; we count children and allocate the state’s resources accordingly.

Which is another reason State Senator Terry Moulton’s position on school choice is so perplexing. Moulton recently told a group of local school board members from his district that he opposes putting the expansion of private school choice in the state budget.
According to the Chippewa Herald, Moulton supposedly claimed he wanted the school choice provision out of the state budget after he looked at the state constitution. In case Moulton is confused, he should know that the private school choice option is legal under the state constitution.

Furthermore, when roughly a third of the state budget is education spending, there is no justification for keeping how those education dollars are spent out of the state budget. Moulton and his fellow legislators have a responsibility to determine where that money is spent. Otherwise, why are they bothering to craft a budget?

But what’s really disappointing about Moulton’s response to the local educators is that he did not even tell them none of their districts are being considered for the expansion of school choice. Not the Chippewa Falls district, not the Eau Claire school district, and not the Altoona school district. Why is Moulton catering to these scare tactics by people determined to defend the educational status quo?

What Moulton should have done is repeat what state Representative Tom Larson told the audience. Larson told the audience that if the school choice program went away, districts like Altoona would actually suffer as a result.

According to an analysis by the School Choice Demonstration Project, the Milwaukee choice program created a net benefit of $46.7 million in 2010 for Wisconsin taxpayers. That type of savings will only go up with the current expansion of school choice in Racine. Taxpayers in Moulton’s district will again benefit if school choice is expanded to the nine other school districts, just as the state sees more of a net fiscal benefit, too.

We live in a state where 26% of children statewide exercise some form of choice, including 81% of the children in Milwaukee. Giving parents options in education is always popular as we are seeing in Racine, the latest district to see an expansion of private school choice. We can choose to allow parents to decide which schools are the best for their children, knowing that it makes good policy and fiscal sense. Now is not the time to fear expanding private school choice. Now is the time to embrace it.