Why You Should Be Worried About The Rapid Rise of Private Voucher Schools

We must reinvest in our public education system, which remains a cornerstone of our democratic society as a priority, not an opportunity to divert funds to unproven schemes.
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Red High School Lockers
Red High School Lockers

Well before I first arrived on Capitol Hill, my home state of Wisconsin had emerged as laboratory for right-wing experiments with far-reaching, national ambitions. These efforts had certain aims in common: they attempted to undermine public workers, attack state budgets, threaten equal access to quality education, and leave behind some of our most vulnerable populations all under the guise of improving education. But one little-noticed policy has produced all of those alarming results: taxpayer-funded voucher schools.

The effects of taxpayer-funded voucher programs, which subsidize private school enrollments through public money, had faced surprisingly little scrutiny -- until now. At my request, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) launched a multi-year study on the topic and its newly released report confirms many of my deepest concerns.

Among other troubling discoveries, the GAO found that taxpayer-funded voucher programs:

  1. Have weaker standards for teacher preparedness than public schools

  • Cherry-pick student applicants to taxpayer-funded voucher schools for admission often times discriminating against some students based on their religion or disability-related behaviors;
  • Often siphon away funds directly allocated to public schools;
  • Fail to serve students when deficiencies in taxpayer-subsidized private schools lead to students with disabilities departing the school because they required more services than the schools could provide.
  • And these disturbing trends may only get worse. Despite very little evidence on their effectiveness and accountability, the GAO notes that both participation in voucher programs and taxpayer funding for them have more than doubled. They now encompass more than 140,000 students and nearly $1 billion nationally.

    In Wisconsin, these problems are even more pronounced. Governor Scott Walker's taxpayer-funded voucher expansion proposal would cut almost $50 million in funding for public school districts over the next two years, entrenching this subsidy for a program in which four out of five students are already enrolled in private schools in the most recent expansion.

    And the stakes are high: the GAO found that Wisconsin's largest taxpayer-funded voucher program, Milwaukee Parental Choice, already received almost one-third of its budget from "state funds that would have otherwise gone to the Milwaukee Public School District," and the federal agency noted that the city "may levy additional property taxes on city residents to recoup the lost state funds."

    Growing up in a working-class home, high-quality public schools with caring teachers helped make me the person I am today. Access to excellent public education for all--regardless of faith, income, or disability--remains a guiding principle for me as a public servant. And fighting tooth and nail for this value means standing with the tireless educators who have been told to make do for less year after year, as ever-greater amounts of taxpayer money is funneled into an unproven and unaccountable privatization scheme.

    The release of this GAO report on the privatization of public education is a welcome break with a relative lack of scrutiny for this right-wing scheme. More needs to be studied, including the poor educational outcomes that arise from these programs. Given the GAO's tough questions and the lack of information surrounding taxpayer-funded vouchers, I believe that parents, students, teachers, communities, and public officials must look to change course dramatically. We must reinvest in our public education system, which remains a cornerstone of our democratic society as a priority, not an opportunity to divert funds to unproven schemes.

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