“I need your help,” Walker told a crowd of about 350 people, the majority of them children, on April 25. “We need you to help us spread that message to other lawmakers in our state Capitol, because they need to understand this is not a political statement; this is not a political campaign. … This is about children.”
The proponents of the proposed expansion of Wisconsin’s private-school voucher program have run out of substantive arguments. Governor Walker’s “This is about children” illustrates how vacuous their efforts at persuasion have become.
When Governor Walker’s budget was first announced, his initial talking points in support of his voucher expansion plan featured the claim that schools in the nine targeted school districts were failing and vouchers were necessary to provide a lifeline to students who needed help to pursue other schooling options. Neither the governor nor his supporters are pushing that argument any more. It seems that they got the point that it is not a smart move politically for the governor to go around trashing the public schools in some of the larger urban areas of the state.
While proponents have claimed that students in voucher schools do better academically, the wind has gone out of the sails of that argument as well. DPI has reported that students in voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine performed worse on the WKCE than students in the public schools in those communities. Voucher school advocates can point to data that supposedly support their view, opponents can counter with contrary figures, and at best the evidence on improved student performance is a wash. There is no reason to think that students in the nine districts targeted for voucher expansion would do any better in the private schools in their area than they would in their neighborhood public schools. No one has offered an argument to the contrary.
Voucher proponents sometimes try to construct a cost-savings argument around the fact that the per-pupil amounts that voucher students would receive are less than the average per-pupil expenditures by their school districts. But this argument goes nowhere because no one is proposing that the public schools shut down as voucher schools expand. Consequently, there’s really not much of a response to the observation credited to former Governor Tommy Thompson that “We can’t afford two systems of education.”
Additionally, voucher schools have not discovered a magic bullet that allows them to educate students across the spectrum of needs more economically. Here’s a telling excerpt from an op ed by the Choice Schools Association advocating for much higher voucher payments and posted on line by the right-wing MacIver Institute:
So how do choice schools serving the poorest families manage to succeed despite the financial tourniquet [of receiving less public funding than public schools]? Some schools have been successful with fundraising and philanthropy, but most operate “on the backs” of their teachers by paying low salaries, curtailing employee benefits and foregoing support staff. Clearly, that is not a formula for long term viability.
No, it’s not. It’s also a pretty lousy argument for voucher schools.
It is occasionally suggested that public schools will improve if they are forced to shake off their monopolistic slumber and compete for the patronage of savvy and informed parents who have voucher school options. Surprisingly, the pro-voucher Wisconsin Policy Research Institute demolished this argument back in 2007 when it published a study that, in the words of the Institute, “did not yield the results we had hoped to find.” Instead, the report concluded that no more than ten percent of voucher-eligible parents will exercise their options in a way that is responsive to the relative quality of the schools available to them.
With no real substantive evidence demonstrating the value of voucher schools, proponents for the expansion of the program have fallen back on celebrating the notion of “choice” itself. Last month, the American Federation for Children issued a press release keyed to a pro-voucher rally it sponsored in Waukesha. The release included quotes from supportive Republican legislators. Here is a sample:
Assembly Speaker Vos: “Parents across Wisconsin deserve to have the choice to send their child to the school that best meets their educational needs.”
Senator Kedzie: “I support providing parents the opportunity to choose the most appropriate educational setting for their child.”
Representative Strachota: “When it comes to choosing the right school for their children parents need true options, which is why I support expanding school choice in Wisconsin.”
Representative Craig: “All parents should have the ability to choose the best education options for their children.”
Representative August: “I fully support Governor Walker’s efforts to expand School Choice in Wisconsin, as School Choice allows parents to choose the best school for their child. “
Senator Lazich: “Providing parents choices for their child’s education, gives students more opportunities for success.”
Do you sense a common theme here? Voucher school expansion is good because it allows parents to choose the best schools for their children.
But here’s a news flash: parents already have that choice. They are free to send their children to parochial or other private schools, transfer to other public schools in their school district, open enroll into public schools in neighboring school districts or into virtual schools, or be home schooled.
The issue isn’t whether parents should have a choice. That issue is settled: they do. It is whether the government should subsidize their preference for other options when parents decide that the public schools provided for their children aren’t what they want.
It is hard to see what larger societal interest is furthered by these subsidies. This is particularly so since there is no convincing evidence that voucher students learn more than they would in public schools and it is apparent that creating a second, private, taxpayer-supported school system is both costly and damaging to our existing public schools, which must be the education providers of last resort for everyone. “Choice” isn’t a virtue when it is created by offering options that undermine our important institutions.
That private school vouchers may be popular among parents who would like to use them is neither surprising nor significant. The beneficiaries of a government program are usually supportive of the program. The legislature could propose giving a twenty-five percent break on state income taxes to all Wisconsin residents born in the month of December. The proposal would probably be enthusiastically supported by about eight percent of the population.
But that doesn’t make the proposal a sound one. The salient question would be whether a legitimate state interest or policy would be furthered as a result of the new benefits that the proposal would create. Giving tax breaks to those with December birthdays would flunk this test. Unless someone can articulate a legitimate state interest that is furthered by expanding and increasing the entitlements paid to families attending private schools, so does the voucher expansion proposal.
So, “giving parents a choice” is both inaccurate as a description and inadequate as a justification for the private school voucher expansion proposal.
What’s left? The one legitimate argument in support of voucher expansion is the libertarian and anti-government one that public schools are inherently bad. From this perspective, vouchers free parents from the tyranny of being forced to send their children to “government schools” where they will be indoctrinated into the left-leaning, overly-permissive, collectivist, statist mindset that saps the initiative and independent thinking of the vulnerable young. The ever-quotable Senator Glenn Grothman captured this sentiment: “As we combat the moral and spiritual decline of our country, alternatives to our public schools are a necessity.”
From the hard-core libertarian perspective, expanding the voucher program makes all the sense in the world. The problem, though, is that most of us view the folks who swoon to this kind of thinking more as crackpots than as thought leaders. A referendum asking support for a policy of undermining “government schools” would fail resoundingly anywhere outside of a Ron Paul rally or an Ayn Rand fan club convention. Hence, the search for alternative arguments.
But, as the discussion goes on, it is becoming increasingly apparent that for the voucher expansion advocates searching for more socially acceptable and minimally persuasive arguments supporting their cause, the rhetorical cupboard is bare.