Funding School Choice Programs, Not Public Schools, Is the Best Way to Help Wisconsin Children

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

In November, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor called for a whopping $1.6 billion budget increase for the Department of Public Instruction, citing how the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified “many existing inequities in our state and highlighted essential areas where our students and educators need further support. She claims “the budget [she’s] submitted provides the resources, services, and funding to help meet the needs of Wisconsin students.”

In reality, this budget increase would manifestly not help meet the needs of Wisconsin students. It is no more than just a sop to the state’s teachers unions and an attempt to prop up a dismal public education system that is working less and less for more and more Wisconsin children.

More than 25,000 children have left the state’s public school system since the previous school year, as parents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the quality of instruction they provide, and the politics unions are playing with school re-openings.

A study published on November 16 by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) found union presence in a Wisconsin school district makes that district more likely to keep physical schools closed and forcing virtual instruction onto thousands of Wisconsin children, despite the fact that in-person instruction is not in any way a significant driver for COVID-19 spread. WILL’s findings are backed up in a national study from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which found “politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening.”

No one wants to see their children used as pawns in a power struggle, but that is exactly how teachers unions in the state are treating their nominal charges. Are we shocked parents are angry and demanding alternatives?

While public school attendance is falling, enrollment in the state’s many voucher programs—the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP), Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP), and the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP)—has grown by more than 2,500 students. These programs now educate nearly 46,000 Wisconsin children.

The data on the outcomes provided by these programs show why there is such demand for them. A 2019 peer-reviewed WILL study found students in Wisconsin’s multiple voucher programs are outperforming their traditional public school (TPS) peers in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics proficiency.

In Milwaukee, MPCP schools had proficiency rates 4.65 percent higher in ELA and 3.95 percent in math, respectively, than Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Schools participating in RPCP and WPCP also showed proficiency rates 3 percent higher in ELA. Student growth, how much a student increases their performance from one year to the next, was 7 percent higher in MPCP than MPS and was 6.8 percent higher in RPCP and WPCP.

WILL finds Catholic and Lutheran schools are the main drivers in the proficiency advantage MPCP schools hold over MPS. MPCP Catholic schools were 8.9 percent more proficient in ELA and 4.1 percent higher in math than in similar TPS. Lutheran schools were 7.1 percent more proficient in math than TPS.

This is not the only good news to come out about Wisconsin’s school choice programs last year. A Reason Foundation study found Wisconsin private schools receive 27 percent less funding than TPS, yet they produce 2.27 more points on the state’s Accountability Report Cards for every $1,000 invested, making them 36 percent more cost-effective than TPS. Private schools in Milwaukee are 50 percent more cost effective, and private schools in Racine are 75 percent more cost effective than TPS in those cities.

Another study, published in Social Science Quarterly, showed persistent, long-term participation in MPCP can lead to decreased criminal activity for Milwaukee children later in life. Earlier research show high school students participating in MPCP have lower levels of criminality than their MPS peers, and MPCP students are expected to generate almost $475 million in additional economic benefits “associated with higher graduation rates” from 2016 to 2035. A WILL study from this past January backs this up by demonstrating how a 20 percent increase in voucher enrollment could lead to $3.2 billion in economic benefit to Wisconsin over the next two decades through increased graduation rates.

The best thing legislators in Wisconsin could do for the state’s children is not to acquiesce to Superintendent Taylor’s budget demands, but instead to increase availability to the state’s voucher programs. Wisconsin has been a national leader for decades on education choice, and there would be no better way for legislators to continue this tradition than for making the state’s voucher programs universal, open to all Wisconsin children, so that all families may benefit from these great programs.

Tim Benson ([email protected]) is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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