School Administrators Alliance Once Again Forgoes Reality in School Choice Fear Mongering

August 21, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

This spring, John Forester presented a bleak future for the state of Wisconsin – a world where educational vouchers cost the state $628 million. Fortunately for state taxpayers, his nightmare scenario had no basis in reality.

Now, three months later, Forester has typed up a press release that says almost the same thing, word for word. And, three months later, it’s no truer than it had been in May.

Forester claims that vouchers will subsidize tuition costs for families that are already in private schools. He says that if every child currently enrolled in private schools takes advantage of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, it could cost the state over $700 million in additional funding.

Except, thanks to the way that the WPCP is written, not a single part of that would be legal. There are currently 97,488 private school students in Wisconsin. The WPCP has an enrollment cap of 500 students this year and 1,000 students the next. Once that 1,000-student cap is hit, there are no plans in place to expand it further.

More importantly, another roadblock is in place to limit vouchers to the families that need them the most. In order for a student to qualify for the WPCP, his or her family cannot have an annual income that exceeds 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. That was a shade over $43,500 in 2012-2013. Any family that earns more than that figure is prohibited from using a voucher to pay for private school tuition, regardless of whether or not their children currently attend public or private school.

These caps and limitations aren’t speculative – they’re real. They are the rules that govern the WPCP. With these policies in place, the state simply cannot do the nerve-inducing things that Forester and the SAA and suggesting that it can.

Forester implies that costs of up to $765 million are coming down the pipe. However, if current WPCP application trends hold, only 667 students would migrate into the program from their current private schools. That number is more than 96,000 pupils lower than Forester’s count. Even if we assume that they are all high school students (and thus eligible to receive the highest voucher amount, at $7,856), the cost to the state would be $5,239,952. That cost is $760 million less than his most inflated scenario.

He also ignores the financial hardships that low-income families go through in order to send a child to private school when a traditional public school education isn’t working for them. When a family of four is earning less than $43,567, sacrifices have to be made to put the child’s best interest first. When those families can take advantage of the voucher program – a program whose tuition costs, even after next year’s increase, will be less than two-thirds of the state’s per-student cost in public schools – it gives them the opportunity to make room for the other important things in their lives.

And Forester entirely ignores the students who are using the WPCP as their only opportunity to leave a public school environment that is failing them. There’s no mention whatsoever of the students who are leaving public schools through the WPCP voucher. Nor is there a mention of why these students would want to leave. For these children, the WPCP is an opportunity to find the dynamic education that works best for them and helps them find success in the classroom.

Forester calls the WPCP an entitlement program – a bitter-sounding insult towards students that just want to find the best educational setting in which they can succeed. In doing so, he ignores his own inherent entitlement presented in his very argument against school choice. Public schools, Forester suggests, should be the only source of funding and enrollment for Wisconsin students. His argument presumes that choice has no place in K-12 education.

So, let’s call Forester’s nightmare-inducing, doomsday scenario what it is – fear mongering. His claims have no basis in fact, and his projections apply to a scenario that doesn’t exist. It’s an irresponsible, desperate act designed to turn the public against vouchers and shame low-income families who have the audacity to put the best interests of their families and the education of their children first.

But, if we’d like to talk about future scenarios, why not start with one that’s rooted in past reforms? Racine’s voucher program was created in 2011 with an explicit condition that prevented most students that had previously attended private schools from participating. Only students that had enrolled in a public school the year prior, were just beginning school, or were applying for a voucher in either first or ninth grade could take part in that program. While this caveat was not extended to the WPCP, it’s clearly a policy that lawmakers are willing to fall back on if costs become prohibitive.

Now which scenario seems more likely – Forester’s doomsday prediction that sends every private school student to school using state funding and costs upwards of $700 million? Or a statewide program that utilizes an enrollment procedure that already exists in the last iteration of Wisconsin’s school choice expansion? When you take a common sense look at vouchers and their history in Wisconsin, Forester’s claims just don’t add up.