Choice Schools Association Responds to Journal Sentinel Editorial

The Op-Ed the Journal Sentinel Refused to Publish

May 2, 2013

By Dick Laabs
Choice Schools Association President

The Journal Sentinel editorial board recently quoted the Department of Public Instruction Superintendent as saying, “The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”

I absolutely agree. In fact, voucher school advocates have long been saying the exact same thing.

The superintendent errs, however, when he suggests that private schools that serve choice students are the ones that have somehow been shown preferential treatment over the years. In fact, a look at the history and the current funding gap between choice schools and public schools suggest Evers and the Journal Sentinel editorial board either have not been paying attention for the last decade or are purposely distorting reality to fit their agenda.

Here are the real facts:

Gov. Walker has proposed increasing taxpayer funding for K-8 students in private and religious schools that participate in parental choice programs from the current $6,442 per pupil to $7,050 during the 2014-’15 school year. Critics frame this 9% hike as larger than increases for public schools.

The truth is that even with the increase, schools in choice programs are funded at far lower levels than their public school counterparts. Moreover, the facts show that choice schools have been denied any meaningful funding increases for over a decade while revenue to public schools consistently increased.

When Walker’s predecessor, Jim Doyle, was elected in 2002, taxpayer support was approximately $5,800 per pupil in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and slightly more than $11,000 per pupil in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Doyle and his allies were unable to eliminate the MPCP because it had become successful and popular with many parents, so their strategy was to apply a fiscal tourniquet to the program instead.

While there have been ups and downs, per pupil taxpayer support for MPS students increased to $13,269 by 2011-2012, the latest year for which figures are available – a $2,200 increase of more than 20 percent.

And how did MPCP schools fare during that timeframe? Taxpayer funding for choice students increased only $660 during that same nine-year period, an 11% increase that was significantly below the rate of inflation and leaves choice students today with less than half the funding that flows to their friends in public schools.

Despite ample data that shows voucher students do as well or better academically, and are more likely to graduate from high school than their public school counterparts, opponents of choice programs kept that tourniquet cinched for nearly a decade.

Gov. Walker, to his credit, is now trying to loosen it up.

In addition to increasing funding for K-8 choice students, Walker is also proposing an increase of approximately $1,400 for high school students. This bifurcated funding at long last recognizes the increased costs of operating a high school.

Walker is also proposing a gradual expansion of parental school choice programs to other parts of the state that deserve to know the history and facts.

The MPCP has now been operating for more than 20 years. Participating schools are accredited and accountable. They are audited annually by independent certified public accountants. They are forbidden by law to “cherry-pick” students and serve special needs students. They administer the same state-mandated tests given in public schools and results are released to the public.

So how do choice schools serving the poorest families manage to succeed despite the financial tourniquet? Some schools have been successful with fundraising and philanthropy, but most operate “on the backs” of their teachers by paying low salaries, curtailing employee benefits and foregoing support staff. Clearly, that is not a formula for long term viability.

The Superintendent is right. It is now time for the state to stop playing favorites when funding schools. Let’s invest in all our kids and not value some less than others just because parents have exercised their constitutional right to choose the best school for their children.