February 1, 2023

Rod Cramer: The Wisconsin public schools story: A cautionary tale for Idaho

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Rod Cramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, and he sees big trouble ahead in Idaho’s embrace of school vouchers. In an in-depth piece for the Idaho Capital Sun, he examines how vouchers have been a disaster for Wisconsin–particularly the rural schools.

He cites a GOP legislator who sounded the alarm early on.

In 2014, the year after the Wisconsin Legislature voted to take the state’s voucher program statewide, Rep. Steve Kestell, a Republican from the village of Elkhart Lake, sounded the alarm. He said that expanding the state’s voucher program was not sound public policy – nor sound fiscal policy.

“This is a case where ideology sort of overwhelms good sense and judgment,” said Kestell, who chaired the Wisconsin’s Assembly’s Education Committee for many years. “Where people who should have known better and are good mathematicians aren’t willing to do the math. It’s because they don’t want to show that would be detrimental to their plans. And the math doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.”

The impact was felt across the state, but it hit especially hard in rural districts, both for schools and taxpayers.

Despite Kestell’s warnings the Wisconsin Legislature has continued to expand the school privatization program. The Wisconsin voucher program now pays the tuition for 42,649 students to attend private and religious schools at a cost to taxpayers of $457.4 million a year.

But the cost of privatization hasn’t just hit state taxpayers, it has also proved detrimental to Wisconsin’s public schools, especially rural schools, just as Kestell warned. State funding for Wisconsin’s public schools was cut by $211.5 million last year.

But there are other startling consequences of privatizing education that sometimes gets lost: Local property taxpayers in Wisconsin have essentially made up that $211.5 million loss of state funding by raising property taxes to keep their public schools operating.

The bottom line is local property taxpayers in Wisconsin are paying the price to provide subsidies for families who send their kids to private and religious schools in Milwaukee, Madison and Racine.

This is a thorough piece that shows the real danger of a statewide voucher program. Kestell’s warnings apply to every state considering such a program:

“No one has even tried to explain how we’re going to deal with that as a state. No one has tried to explain how we’re going to fund parallel school programs. Because that is where we are heading.”

Read the full piece here. 

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