“My son and his school are not for sale,” Peg Randall Gardner told a public hearing in Milwaukee. “I am a parent and I don’t have a choice. My son has multiple disabilities, and the school choice program isn’t required by law to take him.”
Gardner joined other parents and a vocal group of educators before the Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee in January to speak out against AB1, a bill proposed by state lawmakers that would give significantly more funding to charter schools and green light voucher expansion. But, as Gardner pointed out, participating private schools may have exclusive admission policies that lock out children such as hers.
Amy Mizialko, a 23-year special education teacher in Milwaukee, told the committee that the evidence that these programs work is simply not there.
"Forty-three percent of students in Milwaukee currently attend a privately run charter or a voucher school already and 75% of these students perform no better and some perform worse than our public schools," Mizialko said. "Creating more of these schools is not a solution."
While voucher advocates like to use words like “choice,” “freedom” and “opportunity,” AB1 is really nothing more than a measure to take over public schools and accelerate the privatization of public education - "charting a course for the end of our neighborhood public schools as we know them," says Betsy Kippers, a physical education teacher for students with special needs who is serving as president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Kippers said AB1 is one of several proposals being floated by politicians that are all “rigged in favor of voucher schools."
Every dollar that a voucher program receives - whether it's dubbed an individual tax credit or dressed up as an education savings account - could fund a community’s public education system. But the proper funding of public schools - especially those attended by our most economically-disadvantaged students - appears no longer to be a priority for an alarming number of politicians. After launching its statewide voucher program in 2014, Wisconsin lawmakers are now debating a budget that blows the lid off of enrollment limits to allow unfettered expansion, even though no accountability system is in place for these schools.
The increasingly rapid flow of taxpayer money to cover private school tuition threatens public schools everywhere. Since 2011, two other statewide voucher programs have been launched - in Indiana (which is now the largest in the nation) and Louisiana - and local programs have been expanded. In 2015, vouchers have been the focus of legislative action in states such as Tennessee, Arizona, and Texas.
“This push to fund private school tuition at taxpayer expense has been relentless despite mounting evidence that these schemes hurt students," says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. "These schools follow a totally different set of rules than a neighborhood public school, but where’s the accountability? No improvement in student achievement and no commitment to accept all students."
GOP 2014 Victories Lead to Voucher Expansion
Just last year, the move to expand of vouchers seemed to lose a little momentum. A 2014 court ruling in North Carolina effectively ended that state's voucher program and lawmakers in other parts of the country had at best mixed success in creating new ones. In Washington, attempts to push voucher legislation in Congress failed to gain any traction.
However, the widespread GOP victories in the 2014 midterm elections have reinvigorated the movement at both the state and federal level.
The electoral success of pro-voucher politicians, however, does not obscure the fact that there still isn’t any solid evidence that students who use vouchers to attend private school perform better academically. A 2011 report by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) that reviewed a decade of voucher research found no clear positive impact on student academic achievement and at best mixed outcomes overall for students who attend private schools using vouchers.
One analysis of Milwaukee’s voucher program in 2013 revealed that only 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and only 11 percent scored proficient in reading on statewide tests. Participating private schools may limit enrollment, maintain exclusive admissions policies, and charge tuition and fees that a voucher cannot come close to covering. In addition, there are no laws requiring the same transparency and accountability systems that public schools must adhere to.
And the policy remain steadfastly unpopular with the American people - according to the 2013 PDK/Gallup poll, 70 percent of the public are opposed to using taxpayer money for private school enrollment.
Looking at the evidence and consequences of vouchers wasn't a priority during “School Choice Week” in February. In Washington D.C. a group of prominent conservative lawmakers – including Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN), and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana - gathered on Capitol Hill to champion congressional action on vouchers and charter schools at an event called “Choosing Excellence."
"This is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Rep.Messer. “For our students to compete in the 21st Century global economy, they need to have access to a high-quality education. Let’s give parents a choice, so kids have a chance.”
Many at the event described school choice as being a personal issue for them. Scott recounted how his failing grades strengthened his belief that every family, regardless of income level, should have the freedom to determine where their child attends school.
The voucher program is part of a national, if not international, effort to destroy the public schools, to defund them, to make them work less efficiently and less effectively, and ultimately destroy them.
The word “freedom” was uttered more than a dozen times during the discussion - a blatant attempt to obscure the lack of supporting evidence and divert attention away from the faction of incredibly wealthy conservative donors and political groups. These, of course, include the Koch Brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (better known as ALEC) who advance the privatization of public education and are funding many school choice campaigns.
Still, the efforts of Scott and Messer to push vouchers in Congress are having an impact on the current debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act . Some lawmakers are pushing for the inclusion of a policy called “Title I Portability,” which allows federal funding for disadvantaged children to follow students to a public school of their choice. Senator Scott supports taking this a big step further by allowing Title I money to flow into private schools as well, draining critical funds from high-poverty schools and turning Title I into a full-fledged voucher program.
One Big Entitlement Program
But the most aggressive voucher expansion is occurring at the state level. In Wisconsin, where 80% of those who use school vouchers didn’t even previously attend a public school, Gov. Scott Walker's new budget aims to entirely eliminate the cap on the amount of vouchers that can be offered, while cutting funding for public school students by $150 each.
Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, says the state's voucher program - which began in Milwaukee more than two decades ago and expanded statewide in 2013 - is creating a “bifurcated system” of education.
“Since the voucher program in Wisconsin started in 1990, over $1.4 billion of public taxpayer dollars have gone to private schools. At the same time, we’ve seen massive cuts to public education statewide. So there’s a direct relationship: the money comes out of the general education fund,” he explains.
The intent of voucher programs, Peterson says, is clear.
“Public schools are the only institution in our community that have the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve all of our students. The voucher program is part of a national, if not international, effort to destroy the public schools, to defund them, to make them work less efficiently and less effectively, and ultimately destroy them.”
No state in the nation has seen vouchers expand quite as quickly as Indiana, where currently more than 30,000 students are now attending private schools with the help of vouchers - an almost 50 percent increase over 2014, according to a new report by the Indiana Department of Education.
The GOP-controlled legislature has proposed that the previous cap of $4,800 on voucher programs be removed, which will siphon off millions more dollars from public schools. Although, overall, Indiana’s education budget is larger than in previous years the biggest share of the increase is going to “per student” programs, such as vouchers.
As in other states, the voucher program in Indiana was originally advertised as merely an alternative for low income families to use if their schools were failing.
"That tale quickly and methodically changed," says Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.
"Today, only 2 percent of participants had attended an F public school," Meredith explains. "The most expansive voucher program in America has become an entitlement program which in large part, now benefits middle class families who always intended to send their children to private (mostly religious) schools and taxpayers are footing the growing bill."
Relatively few states house statewide voucher programs but what happened in Indiana could easily happen elsewhere. In 2010, the program didn't exist. A mere few years later, it has become the largest in the nation. The good news is that educators and parents are speaking out against vouchers and informing the public about the hidden agenda behind alluring but deceptive slogans.
"Buzzwords such as 'choice' and 'freedom' are used only to mask what vouchers actually are - a shameful, unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars," says Lily Eskelsen García. "What our students really need are stable public schools equipped with adequate resources, smaller class sizes and committed classroom teachers."