Governor Walker gave his budget address tonight. The biggest thing that wasn’t already floated is a major change in School Choice. WisPolitics has some details:
In addition to lifting the caps on the number of students and schools that could participate in the choice program statewide, Walker is calling for a change to how the vouchers are funded for students added to the program and new limits on who can join.
After the program was expanded statewide two years ago, reports found the vast majority of students who joined were already attending private schools. Under the budget, those now in the outstate choice program would be allowed to remain. But those seeking to join the program going forward would already have to be attending a public school.
The vouchers are also now funded through a GPR appropriation. But funding for the outstate slots would be changed, under Walker’s plan. The schools who lose students to the choice program would have their aid reduced, and that money would then be pooled statewide and divided equally among the outstate choice students.
Doing so would smooth out the differences in the amount of state aid sent to districts based on property values, administration officials say. For example, districts with high property values receive less in state aid than those with low property values. The approach would ensure students from both districts would receive the same sized voucher, administration officials say.
Eh… it’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not crazy about it. What Walker is trying to do is make it so that he can expand school choice without adding spending. It’s a good goal, but a flawed way to get there.
The “problem” that Walker highlights is that many of the families who qualified for vouchers were already attending a private school. So the kids were already attending private school and it wasn’t costing the taxpayers anything, but now it is. It is an expense that the state taxpayers did not previously have.
This is only perceived as a “problem” in the context of government spending, but not in the overall purpose of school choice. The philosophy behind school choice is pretty simple. The taxpayers are obligated, both morally and constitutionally, to pay for an education for Wisconsin’s kids. In the existing system, rich families already have a choice to send their kids to the school of their choice. Means-tested vouchers level the playing field by facilitating the same choice for all families.
In this case, it is quite true that there are many families who qualify for vouchers – meaning that they are in the lower part of the income scale – were already sending their kids to private school. Some of them are making tremendous sacrifices to make it happen. Some are receiving financial aid through their churches or elsewhere. Some are managing to pay for it with support from their extended families. Now they can receive a voucher to make the sacrifice not as painful. So what? Why is this a “problem?” Are these families somehow less worthy than families who made different choices by sending their kids to public school? I certainly don’t think so. If people are worried that they were managing to send their kids to private school already, then lower the income threshold overall.
What I don’t like about Walker’s plan is that it creates a patchwork of rules that does not treat all people the same. Under his plan, families in Milwaukee and Racine are unaffected. Any of them still qualify irrespective of whether or not they already attend a private school or not. Families who already qualified for vouchers in the rest of Wisconsin can keep getting them. But families who either didn’t win the lottery last time, are just having kids come of age, or perhaps just slipped under the income threshold to qualify, may only receive a voucher if their kids attend a public school.
What a mess…
If this passes, expect a lot of families to enroll their kids in public school just to yank them out after the first day and move them to a private school with a voucher.
Like I said, it’s a step in the right direction in lifting the caps and looking for a better funding mechanism, but it should be a program that treats all families equally.