In States with Oldest School Vouchers, School Choice Week Is Filled with Contention

Wisconsin and Ohio have the oldest school choice programs in the United States.  Milwaukee’s voucher program is 30 years old and the Cleveland Voucher Program is 24 years old.  Both states have expanded vouchers statewide beyond the two cities where they began. It ought to be a red flag that in these two states with the oldest programs, National School Choice Week may have been more contentious than anywhere else in the country.

National School Choice Week in Wisconsin

Last week Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went to Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city, to honor National School Choice Week, a celebration of vouchers and charter schools that was established and is promoted every year by groups like the American Federation for Children—the group DeVos herself helped found and to which she has regularly donated generously—and Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd.

Pence and DeVos were not welcomed by Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who skipped the event altogether. Before he was elected governor, Evers was the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, and before that he was a public school educator. Evers has devoted his career to leading and promoting the state’s public schools.

Neither Pence nor DeVos was welcomed by the Capital Times in Madison, which editorialized: “Pence parrots the talking points of the wealthy campaign donors he has always served…. That’s what Pence did Tuesday in Madison… Pence was promoting ongoing efforts to undermine public education with the usual cabal of billionaire-funded advocates for the agenda of the Trump-Pence administration’s ‘school choice’ agenda… Out-of-state billionaires like DeVos and politicians like Pence have for years targeted Wisconsin in their efforts to promote ‘school choice’ initiatives. They got traction when one of their lackeys, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was in office. But Walker, a Pence crony, was swept out of office in 2018 by a supporter of public education, Democrat Tony Evers.”

The Capital Times‘ editorial board adds that this year, there has been pressure against school privatization in the city of Milwaukee itself: “(I)n the spring of 2019, critics of school choice and school privatization schemes swept school board elections in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city… Key to the pushback against the ‘school choice’ advocates was the activism of African American and Latino Milwaukeeans, and the determination of groups such as Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) and Voces de la Frontera Action, Inc. to defend public education.”

On the very same day Pence and DeVos came to Madison to extol school choice, the Capital TimesBriana Reilly reported that State Representative, Jonathan Brostoff joined fellow Democratic lawmakers and public school advocates to reintroduce a bill that would phase out Wisconsin vouchers and reinstate a Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, to reduce public school class sizes and upgrade the curriculum in participating public schools.

Executive Director of the statewide Wisconsin Public Education Network, Heather DuBois Bourenane endorsed the Public Education Reinvestment Act being introduced. First she explained specific problems with private schools that receive vouchers: “They do not answer to a locally elected school board. They do not have to follow laws protecting students with disabilities. They do not have to follow the same stringent reporting and hiring requirements as public schools. They can use curriculum that is religious, unvetted and unscientific. They can—and frequently do—‘counsel out’ students who do not meet expectations, distorting the data on their performance and creating unfunded cost burdens for local public schools. This is unethical and we know it is wrong.”

As in other states, Wisconsin’s legislature has created “school choice” programs, but the same state legislature has neglected to pass the taxes that would fund the programs. In Wisconsin and other states, vouchers and charter schools have been funded at the expense of public schools. DuBois Bourenane described the fiscal disaster thrust on Wisconsin’s public schools by ever-expanding school vouchers: “Wisconsin is spending $351,180,390.29 this year to provide taxpayer funded tuition vouchers to 43,450 students at 317 schools, nearly 100 percent of which are religious schools. We know that nearly all of the students in the statewide program already attended these private schools… There are over 860,000 children whose parents choose to send them to the public schools that are the heart of our communities; public schools that accept, embrace, and proudly serve ALL students. Yet data from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that even as the unaccountable voucher program has been recklessly expanded, our public schools have been increasingly underserved by the state. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, ‘In 2021, the state will invest less in public school districts than it did in 2011…. In 2021, Wisconsin school districts will receive $75 million less in state aid than in 2011 in inflation-adjusted dollars.'”

National School Choice Week In Ohio

Tomorrow, February 1, parents are scheduled to begin claiming vouchers for Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher Program for the 2020-2021 school year, but as of this morning, nobody knows what the program will look like or how many students will be able to qualify.

Buried in amendments inserted at the last minute into the state’s biennial budget last summer was the explosive expansion of this voucher program funded by deductions out of school districts’ budgets. It was the latest development in the Ohio Legislature’s punishment scheme for public school districts, and was based on making schools across the state eligible for vouchers if the state’s school report cards are too low. The number of public schools where students are eligible to claim EdChoice vouchers increased from 255 in the 2018-2019 school year to 517 during this 2019-2020 school year.  The number of qualifying schools is scheduled to grow to more than 1,200 public schools in the 2020-2021 school year. Last summer, the legislature also eliminated a requirement that high school students must have previously enrolled in the school public district paying for the new vouchers.

The rapid expansion of this program has outraged officials and taxpayers across the state’s 610 school districts. In many school districts, the cost of the vouchers is more than the formula adjusted, per-pupil state basic aid.  Several school districts have been forced to put local property tax levies on the ballot just to cover the cost of the new vouchers, many of which will pay for the tuition of students who always been enrolled in private and religious schools.

The Ohio Senate, filled with dogged voucher proponents, released a plan at midnight on Tuesday, a plan that would have cut the number of qualifying voucher schools from 517 to 425 and made some adjustments to cover some of the unexpected costs for the school districts most affected by the huge and unexpected jump in voucher costs for the current school year. Otherwise it left the program intact.

By Wednesday, the Ohio House of Representatives had voted unanimously to reject the Senate’s plan. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Larry Householder, released a proposal on Wednesday night that would base voucher qualification on family income, not on a school or school district’s grade on the state report cards everyone agrees are deeply flawed.  Householder proposed that the state undertake fully to cover the cost of the vouchers, thereby eliminating the school district deduction.

Here, as reported by Karen Kasler of the Statehouse News Bureau, is Householder’s own description of his seemingly simple and fair solution: “We have sent our members home for the night and plan to reconvene at 1 p.m. Thursday for our regularly scheduled session. The House has laid out a simple, straight-forward plan that would replace Ohio’s current building performance-based EdChoice voucher with an opportunity scholarship that would be entirely poverty-based. It would allow schools—public and private—to compete more fairly. These Opportunity Scholarships would be funded directly and entirely by the state, instead of being deducted from state aid paid to local districts, as is currently the case with the performance-based EdChoice voucher. This approach has a lot less impact on local school districts and puts the focus where it belongs: For a more equal opportunity for all of Ohio’s 1.8 million school kids, regardless of their ZIP Code.”

The plans are very different.  A conference committee has been meeting to come up with a compromise. The Saturday date for parents to sign up for vouchers for the 2020-2021 school year looms tomorrow.  This morning the word is that the Legislature may push the deadline for resolving this out for two months. No one knows whether or how this issue will be resolved.

Late yesterday afternoon it was reported that Ohio legislators in favor of of the EdChoice program based on Ohio’s school report cards had reached out to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and asked her to lobby other lawmakers. The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “For school choice advocates, DeVos is considered a champion for private schools and other alternatives to public schools.”  There is, of course, considerable irony that the U.S. Secretary of Education is the lobbyist privatizers bring in when school choice seems REALLY threatened.

This blog has extensively covered problems with Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher Program: here, here, here, and here.

8 thoughts on “In States with Oldest School Vouchers, School Choice Week Is Filled with Contention

  1. The Milwaukee lesson about how we got here.

    I found strong resonance with the recent discussion of the critical difference between achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. The reporting seems to connect very directly to this piece. Years ago I had the opportunity to meet Howard Fuller, generally regarded as the architect of the Milwaukee voucher program. The then Commissioner of Education for NJ and I shared time with Dr. Fuller on a panel focused on access to opportunity. It was a volatile presentation/discussion and, looking back on it now with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I realize that Dr. Fuller could have been described as the canary in the coalmine. I also realize that I was in the presence of a man who had devoted his entire life to the struggle for equal rights and equal opportunity. His proposed “fix” was a response to the continued failure of the ruling class to deal with the needs which drove his life’s work.

    Based on this realization, I believe that we are caught in a loop described by Ackoff and Drucker of trying the do the wrong thing righter… an understandable, but none the less regrettable, response to our failure/unwillingness to deal with our history of depriving those we define as “other” of the basic opportunities we take for granted. In trying to “fix” this problem through the implementation of vouchers, choice, etc. we have now invited the DeVos’s, the Pences, the anti-government neoconservatives to advance an agenda which is classically “Ackoffian “ and even further removed from defining and doing the right thing.

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