Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week.
Frustrated by chronically poorly performing government schools and a well-heeled government education aristocracy that has an agenda far removed from the priorities of parents, education advocates have ignited an education reformation that is sweeping across America. Once a pioneer in education, Wisconsin looks like it will be watching from the sidelines due to unrequited loyalty to a failing bureaucracy.
The education reformation is manifesting in several forms that are being lumped into the moniker of “universal school choice.” While the mechanisms differ, the concept is the same. Reformers are decoupling education funding from the government education industrial complex and crafting programs that fund education for children irrespective of their race, creed, religion, socioeconomic background, or school of choice. They are programs that fund students and not systems.
Last year, Arizona became the first state to pass universal school choice. West Virginia got close, passing a broad plan that provides educational choice to about 93% of their children. Already this year, Iowa has passed universal school choice. The states of Florida, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Indiana are all advancing universal school choice and likely to pass some form by the end of 2023. Several other states are in earlier stages of considering universal school choice. It is conceivable that half of the United States will have universal school choice by 2025. Disastrously for Wisconsin’s children, our state is unlikely to be one of them. Gov. Tony Evers is a lifelong creature of the government education establishment and is vehemently loyal to defending the bureaucracy irrespective of its performance. He has demonstrated his willingness to veto any educational reform that threatens the entrenched power structure and is unlikely to shift his loyalty to children any time soon.
While the Republican majorities in the Legislature are strong, they lack the votes to overcome Evers’ vetoes without some legislative Democrats shifting their support to children. When Governor Tommy Thompson pioneered the original school choice program in Wisconsin, there was bipartisan support, and bipartisan opposition, for it. In today’s political landscape, it is unlikely that enough Democrats are willing to cross the yawning political divide to support kids.
The benefits of school choice have never been clearer. Dr. Will Flanders from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has released his fifth annual “Apples to Apples” research study which evaluates student outcomes across government, charter, and choice schools while controlling for student demographics. This statistical methodology controls for the fact that government, charter, and choice schools have dissimilar student demographics to provide a clear comparison of performance. Notably, this year’s study uses public data from the 2021-2022 school year report cards from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and is the first post-pandemic look at school performance.
The results are clear. According to the study, students in the Milwaukee Choice program are significantly more proficient in English Language Arts and math than their peers in government schools. Students in Milwaukee charter schools (still government schools that have been somewhat liberated from the crushing educational bureaucracy) also perform better than their government school peers, but only about half as much as their peers in choice schools.
In the statewide choice program, students in choice school also have better outcomes, but the benefit is not quite as pronounced as it is for kids in Milwaukee.
Tellingly, the data also bears out the well-known, if patently ignored, fact that spending has very little to do with performance in government or choice schools. This tells us two things. First, it tells us that once spending has reached a level that provides an adequate level of support for good teachers and a safe physical space, all of the additional spending is just waste. Wisconsin already funds education at a level where each additional dollar spent does not have any positive impact on student outcomes. That being the case, policymakers must ask themselves why they would force taxpayers to pay more when there is no measurable benefit to kids.
The second thing this data tells us is that it is the government school system that is retarding student performance. Choice schools operate with less money and produce better outcomes even after accounting for demographic differences in the student body. If the system is the problem, then why should taxpayers and parents be forced to continue to lavishly fund a failed system when demonstrably better systems exist?
I am well aware that such arguments rooted in data and genuine passion for educating children do not hold sway in the intellectually sclerotic mind of Governor Evers, but his term will eventually end and we cannot afford to lose another generation of kids to a failed government system.