Ruth Coniff: How anti-government ideologues targeted Wisconsin public schools
Wisconsin has long been the home base of the Bradley Foundation, one of the major funders of school privatization initiatives. Ruth Coniff breaks down how the far right has chipped away at public education.
For decades, Wisconsin has been at the epicenter of the movement to privatize education, pushed by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, a mega-wealthy conservative foundation and early backer of Milwaukee’s first-in-the-nation school voucher program. That program has expanded from fewer than 350 students when it launched in 1990 to 52,000 Wisconsin students using school vouchers today.
This year school privatization advocates scored a huge victory when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a longtime ally of public schools, agreed to a budget bargain that includes a historic bump in the amount of tax money per pupil Wisconsinites spend on private school vouchers. The rate went up from $8,399 to $9,874 for K-8 students and from $9,405 to $12,368 for high schoolers.
Not only is the amount of money taxpayers spend on private education increasing, in just a couple of years all enrollment caps come off the school choice program. We are on our way to becoming an all-voucher system.
This makes no sense, especially since, over the last 33 years, the school voucher experiment has failed to produce better outcomes in reading and math than regular public schools.
So why are we undermining our public school system to continue the voucher expansion?
School Choice Wisconsin would have you believe that vouchers for private school are an improvement on public schools. In a recent report the group claims that publicly funded private schools are more “cost effective” when you compare their academic results to the cost of educating each student. (Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the same group is pushing to prevent the state from publicly disclosing how much taxpayer money we’re spending on publicly funded private schools.)
There’s something fishy going on with the scientific-sounding document School Choice Wisconsin is promoting.
Using the word “report” to describe the document is “the kind of thing that drives school finance experts nuts,” Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University who has studied school vouchers for nearly two decades. told me on the phone after he read it.
“A serious version of this would give a range and talk about what would happen if you changed your assumptions,” Cowen said. For example, there are big differences in per-pupil spending across Wisconsin school districts, but the school choice lobby group came up with a “back of the envelope” ratio that doesn’t separate different areas with different costs. Nor does it make an apples-to-apples comparison between particular voucher schools and nearby public schools in the same district.
There’s a much bigger problem, though, says Cowen.
“If you took the report at its word,” he says, “it’s possible to achieve exactly what they’re describing simply by exiting the children who are the most expensive to educate.”
That’s significant, because Wisconsin voucher schools have a long record of expelling and counseling out expensive-to-educate students. The ACLU of Wisconsin called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Wisconsin’s school voucher program for discriminating against children with disabilities in 2011, pointing to the very low number of special needs students in Milwaukee voucher schools.
Last May, Wisconsin Watch reported on how voucher schools continue to discriminate against LGBTQ students and kids with disabilities by expelling them or counseling them to drop out.
“Forget cost-effective,” says Cowen. “they’re just able to reject kids that are more costly to them.”