Steven Walters
The State of Politics

The Explosive Growth of School Choice

It’s grown 78% in four years, now puts 32,100 kids in private schools

By - Sep 8th, 2015 09:50 am
School Choice Wisconsin

School Choice Wisconsin

The School Choice program, which lets K-12 students attend private schools with tax-funded vouchers, began with 300 Milwaukee-area poor children attending seven schools in the 1990-91 school year. It resulted from a deal Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson cut with the late Democratic Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams, who split with other African-American legislators on the issue.

Ten years later, 9,238 Milwaukee-area children attended 100 private Choice schools.

In the school year that just started, a record 32,100 children are expected to attend private schools at taxpayers’ expense. And Choice is now statewide: 26,900 of them are in Milwaukee-area private schools and 5,200 are in private schools in Kenosha, Racine and 23 other counties.

As the number of Wisconsin students in Choice exploded, so has its cost to taxpayers. Choice will cost $160.8 million this school year – 78 percent more than just four years ago, according to a new Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo. That doesn’t include a new tax deduction for private-school tuition expected to be worth $30 million a year to taxpayers who claim it.

Despite its 25-year history, Choice remains one of the most emotional fault lines in the Capitol. Republicans champion it; Democrats hate it more than ever.

Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling asked for the Fiscal Bureau memo which concluded that, in the period between the Republicans’ 2011 takeover of the Capitol and mid-2017, state aid to Choice schools will total $1.1 billion.

That $1.1 billion should have gone to public schools, says Shilling: “With declining family wages, a shrinking middle class and statewide teacher shortages, we need to stop taking money away from Wisconsin’s children and start investing in quality public schools.”

More than 50 private schools who participated in the Choice program have been kicked out of it for problems that included fraud, financial mismanagement and health and safety problems, Shilling notes.

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca adds: “The Republican expansion of the failed voucher experiment will take hundreds of millions of public tax dollars directly from our neighborhood schools and divert it to private schools that the GOP refuses to hold accountable.”

But Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel, a champion of Choice, did his own math. “Taxpayers will have spent $59 billion on public schools” over the six-year period cited by Democrats, Stroebel says. “School choice is a mere 1.97 percent of K12 spending.”

Choice voucher amounts this year are $7,860 per high school student, and $7,210 for K-8 students, according to the Fiscal Bureau. So, because public schools statewide spend an average of about $12,700 per student, Choice is a great bargain for taxpayers, Stroebel added.

The dramatic expansion of Choice by Republicans in recent years – first to Racine and then statewide – came after three former Assembly speakers (Jeff Fitzgerald, John Gard and Scott Jensen) pushed for that growth as paid lobbyists.

Jim Bender, a former senior aide to Fitzgerald, is now president of School Choice Wisconsin. He said there is a very simple explanation – demand – for Choice’s dramatic expansion.

“Parents want options in education to find the best fit for their children.  Not a single student is required to enter the program, but on a voluntary basis, thousands of parents have gained access,” Bender said. “The Legislature created the program, but if nobody wanted to voluntarily join … it would fade away.”

And, Choice has not hurt public schools, Bender says. Instead, it “wrestled away some of the control from the public system” – power that many special-interest groups fought to keep.

Parents of Choice students also pay taxes, Bender noted. “The legislature expanded educational options for parents using state resources that everyone pays into. The public schools still receive the same, or more, money per child as they did before. They just have fewer students to educate.”

But one sign that Choice’s expansion will be a major 2016 election issue emerged last week. Matt Ullsvik, the political director for state Senate Democrats, said Choice expansion votes by Republican Sen. Rick Gudex, of Fond du Lac, cost public schools in his district state aid.

As a result, Ullsvik said in a statement, “Students and families across the Fox Valley are suffering from deep budget cuts, outdated facilities, and teacher shortages.”

Gudex, who won his 2012 election by only 600 votes, is a top target of Democrats. The electoral choice voters make may depend on how they view School Choice.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

3 thoughts on “The State of Politics: The Explosive Growth of School Choice”

  1. AG says:

    $160.8 million to educate 32,100 students? Considering voucher schools do at least as well as public schools, better is many respects, it’s amazing they can do that will a cost barely over 5k per student. Imagine if they had the 14k+ that MPS spends!

  2. Rich says:

    …Choice voucher amounts this year are $7,860 per high school student, and $7,21 for K-8 students…

    Missing a digit in the K-8 dollar amount.

    …private schools that the GOP refuses to hold accountable.

    This is one of the bigger problems — Not all institutions are held to the same standards

    Miner says it blurs the separation of church and state and leaves MPS facing the highest hurdles.

    “Private schools operate by completely different rules than public schools. They do not have to follow the federal special education law. They do not have to provide bi-lingual education,” Miner says. “They can kick kids out and there’s no constitutional right to free speech or due process.”

    Miner says MPS must serve all children who come to it, including those who leave or are “counseled out” of voucher schools. She also points out that MPS is accountable to the public, unlike vouchers schools that don’t have to follow open meetings and records laws.

    Yet, Miner says perhaps the most unfortunate result of school choice in Milwaukee is that it’s created an “us-versus-them” mentality.

    “It’s been incredibly divisive, incredibly divisive,” she says.

    Also is the funding flaw that used to affect only City of Milwaukee taxpayers, but now probably affects all of the cities where the program is in operation (though to a lesser extent):
    The fix does not address the other part of the school funding flaw in Milwaukee: Because voucher students are not counted as belonging to Milwaukee Public Schools for the purpose of valuing property, the district appears to be more affluent than it really is. That means Milwaukee taxpayers still pay a higher percentage of MPS’ per-pupil costs than they otherwise would pay if the voucher students were counted in the formula.

  3. Betsy says:

    The cost per pupil numbers are skewed as the public schools’ figure accounts for the cost of providing services to kids with special needs in BOTH public and private schools. Few seem to know that if a student enrolled in a private school requires special education services it is the PUBLIC school district in which that students’ private school is located that must provide services for that private school student. It certainly paints an inappropriately rosy picture for private schools when they can shift the cost of the most expensive students to public schools.

    To further the point raised by Miner about public schools taking all comers…this includes the significant number of students from failed choice schools (a la the Mandella Academy, the LifeSkills Academy and many others) who end up back in public schools after weeks of playing monopoly and watching movies as the predominant part of their choice-school “education.”

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