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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Quarter Century Con of Vouchers

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It’s taken a quarter of a century, but Republican taxpayers around the state and some of their representatives are finally starting to realize they’ve been hoodwinked by their own party’s flimflam advocacy of private school vouchers.

You have to hand it to the voucher movement, though. One of the biggest complaints about modern-day politics is that political leaders rarely look any further into the future than the next election.

The voucher movement has been one of the longest running cons in Wisconsin political history.

Private school vouchers began in 1990 with 300 Milwaukee students in seven schools at a cost of $700,000. Like that classic ’50s horror movie monster in The Blob, it has grown inexorably ever since into a statewide program with nearly 30,000 students and a cost approaching $230 million a year.

The shocking thing is that this wasn’t one of those big government programs by tax-and-spend Democrats. It was conservative Republicans gleefully feeding the beast.

But anyone who looked closely at the Republicans’ rationale for their enormous spending increases knew from the start something was fishy.

Republicans claimed vouchers were a program to improve racial and economic equality by providing the same private school educational opportunities to poor, black children in Milwaukee’s inner city that were available to wealthy, white suburban children.

It’s not an overstatement to say the next Wisconsin Republican legislative proposal to improve the lives of poor African Americans in Milwaukee’s central city will be their first.

Many Republicans wouldn’t even deny it. Since they don’t want to think of themselves as nasty, mean-spirited people, they’ve created an entire political philosophy to justify cutting government assistance to poor families, no matter how badly in need those people are.

It’s based on the total fantasy that poverty is a choice. When government provides minimal means of survival—food assistance for hungry children, unemployment benefits when there are no jobs, health care for those who can’t afford it—Republicans say it encourages people to live a cushy life of poverty.

No one who has ever been poor could possibly believe that. Poverty isn’t just hard. It can be life threatening day after day after day.

 

Private School Students Get Taxpayer Funds

But if Republican leaders don’t really care about providing equal educational opportunities for the poor, what’s their real reason to continually expand taxpayer funding of private schools?

After the program went statewide, it suddenly became obvious. It turns out that vouchers have very little to do with giving public school students access to private schools.  

Quite the contrary: It’s to stick taxpayers statewide with the bills for parents whose children already are attending private schools. 

More than 3,400 students applied for a limited number of 1,000 private school vouchers for this fall. Only 22% of eligible students were from public schools. A whopping 71% of those applicants already are attending private schools.

And why not? Families who decide not to enroll their children in free, taxpayer-paid public schools used to have to pay for their own expensive, private school educations.

If taxpayers are suckers enough to pay for privileged children’s private school educations, parents would have to be fools not to let them.

It’s particularly generous of state taxpayers, since one of the reasons many parents put their children into private schools is they don’t want them associating with the sort of riff raff who attend public schools. You know, the children of the majority of taxpayers.

Since those applications became public, even some outstate Republican leaders on education seem to realize for the first time what they’ve been doing for more than two decades as they’ve shifted money from public schools into private school vouchers.

“The question is, what is this purpose of this program?” said Ripon Republican state Sen. Luther Olsen, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Is it a program to help poor kids get out of public schools or is it a program to pay for the tuition of kids who are already in private schools?

“It’s pretty obvious from the last two go-rounds”—with a majority of applications coming from students already in private schools—“that it’s the latter.”

The tragedy, of course, is that while Republicans continue to increase taxpayer spending for a relatively small number of privileged private school students, Wisconsin public schools, which the overwhelming majority of taxpayers’ children attend, are being devastated by the largest educational cuts in state history.

To add insult to injury, research, which private schools resisted for many years, now shows students from comparable backgrounds perform just as well or better in public schools than they do in private schools.

Now that taxpayers statewide, including Republicans, are starting to realize they’ve been had by a long political con, it’s time to send those hundreds of millions for vouchers back to Wisconsin public schools where they will benefit the majority of our children instead of just a privileged few.