My column for the Daily News is online. Check it out.
The Wisconsin Legislature will soon begin in earnest to craft the next biennial budget that will guide state government through the next two years. It has been a month since Gov. Scott Walker issued his budget proposal, and the Legislature will spend the next three months taking his proposals, vetting them through the fire of the legislative process, injecting many of their own proposals, and at the end they will send a budget to Walker’s desk.
One of the major proposals in Walker’s budget that is likely to be subject to a great deal of debate and revision is a dramatic expansion in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.
The WPCP was launched in 2013 as a limited expansion of school choice throughout Wisconsin, excluding Milwaukee and Racine which have school choice programs. The WPCP is limited to providing vouchers for 1,000 kids (1,000 for next school year) from lowincome families to attend the private school of their choice. In the current school year, 25 schools participated and the 1,000 vouchers were issued using a somewhat convoluted lottery system.
Walker’s proposal is to remove the 1,000-voucher limit on the WCPC and allow for an unlimited number of vouchers. At the same time, Walker is proposing a way to fund the vouchers by reallocating state funds that would have been sent to the child’s corresponding public school. Finally, Walker’s proposal seeks to limit the availability of vouchers to only kids who were not already attending a private school.
Let us start with the good part of Walker’s proposal. The cap on school choice should be lifted. Period.
The whole reason for school choice is to provide the opportunity for families to send their kids to the school of their choice. Families who have the means already have this choice. The WPCP and other school choice programs seek to allow families of any financial status to choose the best school for their kids. If we ascribe to this ethos, then an arbitrary cap on the number of families who can participate is nonsensical.
The remainder of Walker’s ideas regarding funding and placing restrictions on the WPCP requires some work from the Legislature. The idea to limit vouchers to only those kids who have not already attended a private school is, like the cap, nonsensical.
The purpose of this restriction is to keep a budgetary restraint on the expansion of school choice. The reality is that there are many families who are of sufficiently low income to qualify for school vouchers, but sacrifice to send their kids to a private school. This restriction would forbid those families from receiving a voucher to prevent the taxpayers from picking up a bill that they are not currently paying. While the attempt at fiscal control is laudable, this is not the place to do it. Again, if we ascribe to the principle that school choice exists to provide all families — regardless of income — the opportunity to choose the right school for their kids, then we cheapen that principle when we seek to carve out exemptions and exclusions.
While the WPCP began as an extremely limited program with only 1,000 vouchers available for more than 750,000 school kids in the entire state, it is clear that it is going to be substantially expanded in the next budget.
This likely expansion is opening up opportunities all over the state, including here in Washington County. Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School has become the first private high school in the county to enter the WPCP. As the father of a past, present and future student of KML, I have paid close attention to the risks and rewards of the school entering the program. It is a great school and the prospect of more kids able to attend it is nothing but upside for the kids and their parents.
Much like with the debate over right-to-work, the Legislature should focus on keeping the expansion of WPCP simple. They should eschew attempts to complicate it with exclusions, complicated funding formulas, limits, caps, and other complexities that dilute the program.
School choice is a simple idea based on a simple principle. All kids should have access to the best education for them irrespective of their families’ financial means. A clean expansion of the WPCP advances that principle.
(Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident.)