Buyers’ Remorse for Voucher Backers
School choice backers donated generously to Walker, but he’s vacillated on the issue.
In a recent UrbanMilwaukee story (“$8.5 Million Reasons Why GOP Expanding Vouchers”), the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported that Republican legislators “agree on at least one major policy item: more state spending and higher income eligibility limits for the state’s school voucher programs.”
Why the consensus? According to WDC, school choice supporters:
[S]pend millions of dollars to elect GOP candidates…Between January 2010 and December 2016, mostly out-of-state school voucher interests doled out about $8.5 million for direct campaign contributions and outside election spending in legislative and statewide races – nearly all of it to support Republican candidates.
I have no reason to question WDC’s tabulation. As for my reaction to the support that’s been provided, two words came to mind.
I have nearly a decade’s worth of experience raising funds, and contributing my own, for candidates and elected officials who favor expanding educational options for parents. A conduit I started in 2002 raised more than $2 million in the years that I managed it. With Jim Doyle as Governor, this was a fragile time for the growing school choice movement. While he blocked many of our efforts, key legislators enabled us to lift an enrollment cap and enact important accountability measures.
Scott Walker’s 2010 election put state government in GOP control. As a candidate Governor Walker made several encouraging and explicit commitments about strengthening and expanding choice. History taught us that leadership from the Executive Office was essential if real progress was to occur.
It didn’t happen.
For supporters of school choice things were promising early on. In 2011 the Governor proposed: (1) eliminating the Milwaukee enrollment cap; (2) starting a program in Racine; and (3) making any Milwaukee parent eligible. The Legislature OK’d the first two items. It scuttled the goal of universal choice in Milwaukee and instead expanded eligibility to include some middle class families. Governor Walker’s attention was focused on Act 10. He made no serious effort to explain why all Milwaukee parents should have choice.
That’s been it in terms of gubernatorial leadership. After making some encouraging commitments the night of the June 2012 recall, Governor Walker went MIA as far as school choice backers were concerned.
With virtually no input from the school choice coalition, the Governor’s 2013 budget included a flawed choice expansion plan that completely flopped in the GOP-dominated Legislature. At one point, the Governor even attempted to defend his plan by arguing that a DPI report card — not individual parents — should be used to determine where school choice should expand.
Progress in the 2015 session occurred largely due to leadership from Senator Leah Vukmir and Representative John Jagler. They filled the disappointing vacuum created by Governor Walker when he did not offer a special needs voucher program.
The Governor’s 2017-19 re-election budget caps off this sorry chronology. He has visited several dozen public school districts since January to tout the “historic” proposal to boost K-12 public spending by more than $600 million. But as for addressing the glaring financial gap in per-pupil spending between traditional public schools and choice and charter schools: zip. And when it comes to accelerating eligibility for statewide choice: nothing.
The Governor himself said it best when appearing recently in LaCrosse to explain his “historic” support of traditional public schools. Questioned about school choice by some skeptical teachers at the event, he pointedly noted that his budget included “nothing” involving that program.
Seven years after Governor Walker’s election, Wisconsin’s national leadership on school choice has been eclipsed by several other states. The Governor’s initial moves of support are distant memories. Choice and charter programs remain under financed and, in the case of choice, over-regulated. Eligibility restrictions, now and in the future, deny tens of thousands of families the opportunity of expanded choice.
Whatever progress occurs in the current Legislature will be no thanks the Governor Walker. School choice backers have helped provide him with a legislative base of support that would have been responsive to real leadership. His response has been a cold shoulder.