In recent weeks, Gov. Scott Walker has been pushing for renewed efforts to expand Wisconsin’s school voucher program, without exactly specifying what this program would entail. Walker’s renewed effort to expand the program coincides with the efforts of three former Republican state representatives who are now lobbying for an expanded school voucher program. Wisconsin’s school voucher program is misguided and is ultimately not a good policy for the state.
The Wisconsin school voucher program was created in 1990 as an effort to help Milwaukee children living in poverty escape their financial situation. But does the school voucher program actually accomplish this goal? In an individual case, the program may succeed, but when the cases are aggregated together it seems highly unlikely.
Students who qualify for the Wisconsin school voucher program receive a taxpayer-funded subsidy of $6,442 per year to attend a private school of their choice. But the fact remains the average national cost of tuition at private high schools is much higher than Wisconsin’s $6,442 yearly voucher subsidy. According to U.S. News, the average cost of private high school tuition in the U.S. between 1999 and 2000 was $6,053. By 2007 it had reached $10,549. Since the Wisconsin voucher subsidy does not always cover the full cost of private high school tuition, many students eligible for a voucher can’t attend a private high school because they still can’t afford it.
When a voucher-eligible Wisconsin student is actually able to afford private high school tuition, it is usually a parochial school instead of a secular school. This occurs because according to the Anti-Defamation League, “parochial schools are generally a good deal cheaper than other private schools.” This would explain why more than 21,000 of the approximately 25,000 students in the Wisconsin school voucher program attend parochial schools. Although the U.S. Supreme Court does not think school voucher programs — which as a practical matter directly subsidize parochial schools — are a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of separation of church of state, common sense dictates that they do.
Regardless of the constitutional issues school vouchers present when used to finance a parochial school education, school vouchers still don’t fulfill their intended goal of helping students in less than desirable economic situations escape poverty. Many students living in poverty are still not able to afford a private high school’s tuition because the voucher subsidy is simply not enough.
Instead, school vouchers represent the modern trend of Republican Party thinking: privatize and privatize some more.
The Republican Party has been trying to privatize public services for some time now. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, Republicans were determined to change Social Security by passing legislation allowing younger individuals to divert part of their payroll tax contributions into private investment accounts. Ultimately this legislative effort failed. Through the efforts of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, the Republican Party tried to privatize Medicare in 2011. Ryan’s proposal would have transformed Medicare into a voucher system, allowing individuals to buy private health insurance with government subsidies. Once again, this proposal fizzled and never became a reality.
Walker’s Wisconsin school voucher program is part of this broader Republican effort to privatize public services.
This explains why, although the original Wisconsin school voucher program was intended to help those in poverty, under Walker the school voucher program now covers families who earn three times the poverty limit – which in 2011 would have been $67,050 for a family of four. The program has also been expanded to cover more geographical areas than when it was first started in 1990.
Although Walker claims he wants to promote school “choice” and improve public schools, his actions don’t coincide with his rhetoric. According to the Huffington Post, approximately “two-thirds of Wisconsin’s school districts will see a drop in state funding this year” because of the budget Walker signed. In addition, his budget cut $250 million in funding to the University of Wisconsin System.
All the facts demonstrate Walker, regardless of his stated motivations, is trying to undermine Wisconsin’s public school and university systems by slashing their funding. At the same time, he is somehow finding extra room in the Wisconsin state budget to increase and expand the state’s school voucher program. Walker’s policies thus seem like a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine public services in Wisconsin and privatize them whenever possible.
Thomas Jefferson understood the important role public education could have in American society. As he once wrote, “An amendment of our [Virginia] constitution must here come in aid of the public education.” He understood without public educational institutions and adequate funding to these institutions, many people would not have an opportunity to better themselves as participants in our democracy.
Walker’s recent effort towards expanding the Wisconsin school voucher program is just another attempt at privatizing services that belong to the public. It will not improve our public schools, although this should be his number one priority. Instead of expanding the Wisconsin school voucher program and slashing public school financing, Walker needs to increase funding to our public schools and universities.
Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a first-year law student.