Image by the U.S. Department of Education
Having served fourteen years in the Wisconsin state legislature before coming to Congress, I had a front-row seat to witness the growth of the nation’s first and largest taxpayer-funded voucher experiment. Our state was an unfortunate leader in the current march toward corporations and wealthy individuals privatizing our public education system.
Wisconsin now has more than 32,000 students statewide enrolled in its voucher plan, even though approximately three-quarters of the new students receiving that public money were already attending private schools. Now they are just doing so on the taxpayer’s dime. States across the country are draining funds from public schools that educate the vast majority of our children and diverting it to a few students in private schools.
And while state governments are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on these schools, there is virtually no proof that voucher programs are effectively educating our kids. These schools have far less accountability and lower standards than public schools.
Across the country, we are spending more money and sending more kids to taxpayer-funded voucher schools than ever. So when I first came to Congress several years ago, I made it a priority to ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study taxpayer-funded voucher programs.
The GAO found that participation in taxpayer-funded voucher programs has more than doubled in the last five years, from 70,000 to 147,000 students. The bill to taxpayers has grown from $400 million five years ago to $859 million today.
It seems to me that before you dramatically expand a program the way vouchers have ballooned, you might first want to know if they are somewhat effective at teaching our kids.
That hadn’t happened. And the anecdotal evidence is not good.
The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal reported that Right Step Inc., a taxpayer-funded voucher school in Milwaukee, was being sued by a group of parents for allegedly abusive practices. Reports indicate that only 7 percent of students tested at this school met English language arts proficiency and 0 percent were proficient in math. Other voucher schools have closed shop with no warning.
It is absolutely unacceptable to send our students to deficient schools and expect taxpayers to continue funding schools incapable of serving our students’ best interests.
The GAO report also found that some taxpayer-funded voucher schools do not require the same teaching credentials as public schools. The report confirmed that many taxpayer-funded voucher programs do not require teachers to meet minimum standards for teacher preparation, further calling into question the legitimacy of these programs.
Public schools are rightly required to educate all our children. Yet many voucher schools, according to the report, are able to cherry-pick which students they prefer. They could refuse to take in a child who might cost more to educate, such as a child with disabilities. Advocates for people with disabilities, including the ACLU and Disability Rights Wisconsin, have raised concerns that Wisconsin’s school voucher program, either tacitly or explicitly, allows voucher schools to discriminate against students with disabilities in their admission policies.
Worse still, many of these programs cannot even meet the basic needs of students with disabilities who do enroll in their programs, leaving students and their families struggling to find appropriate educational services which would have been otherwise guaranteed in a public school.
The GAO also confirmed that taxpayer-funded voucher schools can mandate religious requirements for students as a part of admissions criteria.
Further, a majority of the programs GAO studied do not cap the amount schools can charge for tuition—a hefty price for schools that remain largely untested.
Given this new verified information from a nonpartisan resource like the GAO, where do we go from here? In its report, the GAO recommends additional federal Department of Education “incorporate information about providing equitable services in the context of private school choice.” I agree. The Department of Education should provide additional guidance.
But I also think taxpayers must demand greater accountability from private voucher schools. At a minimum, they should be held to the same level of accountability—and the same standards—as our public schools.
It is unconscionable for taxpayers to continue funding two duplicative education systems, particularly when the one can cherry-pick students and ignore educational standards and dodge showing proof they are working.
We need to have the federal Department of Education clarify the necessary steps to ensure proper oversight of this program, which appears to be a wasteful, failing experiment. After all, this should be about quality education for our kids.
Democrat Mark Pocan represents Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District.