Op Ed

In Defense of School Choice

Sorry, Rep. Taylor, vouchers aren’t about making a profit, but giving parents choices.

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Rep. Chris Taylor

Rep. Chris Taylor

Once again, a school choice opponent has trotted out the same tired and false rhetoric to demonize the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). In her recent column, State Representative Chris Taylor argues that ALEC, and presumably other voucher proponents are “all about tearing down our public-school infrastructure so corporate privatization efforts can move in and make a buck.” According to Representative Taylor, there is no evidence that voucher students perform better than their public school peers. Both statements are false.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, Representative Taylor’s implication that voucher schools are “corporate” and “for profit.” It’s not a serious argument. Schools in the voucher program are overwhelmingly operated by religious charities. Whatever the motivation for school choice might be, it’s not to “make a buck.” Far from a dismissal of the public good, the vision for school choice proponents is that increased competition in the marketplace will benefit everyone. For decades, poor students in the city of Milwaukee had no choices. The Milwaukee Public Schools functioned as a monopoly and exhibited all of the problems associated with monopolies in the private sector. There was little incentive to innovate or improve performance and, as a result, the schools performed poorly.

Private school choice and the charter system is designed to change that. By offering free alternatives to parents without the means to afford them on their own, schools are forced to serve parents rather than politicians and the adults who work in the system. In short, they have to deliver. At least in the voucher sector, recent research suggests that the marketplace vision is working. High-quality schools are gaining market share, while lower-quality schools are losing it, or being closed by the state. Representative Taylor repeats the false claim that there are “decades of proof” that students in voucher schools perform no better than students in public schools. In reality, academic research has shown that students in the MPCP have higher graduation rates and higher performance on standardized tests. Our own research using the most recent year of testing data found that students in the MPCP outperformed their public school peers on the ACT and Forward Exam once all relevant control variables were taken into account.

Unfortunately, the public schools have not responded as well to increased competition. Aided by politicians like Representative Taylor, public schools leaders have chosen to not to embrace competition but to seek protection from it, fighting the growth of better educational alternatives at every turn.

While creating an incentive to improve, school choice has not come at a cost to the public schools. If, as Representative Taylor claims, school choice is designed to “siphon” money from public schools, it’s making a mess of the job. Per pupil spending is higher today than it was before the start of the voucher program. And because the voucher amount is substantially less than the amount spend on children attending public schools, the program actually saves money which could, if the legislature desired, be further redirected to public schools. Under current law, school districts can continue to receive funding for students they no longer educate if they choose to go to a private school with a voucher, meaning that a student leaving actually increases the districts per student revenue in the short term. Representative Taylor conveniently ignores these facts.

By repeating the false narrative about school choice, Representative Taylor seeks to propagate a system where Wisconsin families most in need of educational alternatives are stuck in failing schools. An honest look at the voucher sector shows a system that is cheaper for Wisconsin taxpayers and produces better outcomes. Unlike Representative Taylor, I refuse to sacrifice the education of Wisconsin’s children at the altar of the public school establishment. While public schools are and will remain an important part of our educational system, it is time for “advocates” of government-run schools to recognize that they are better served by devoting their energies to education and not politics. Instead of working to deny families choice, they should concentrate on offering a product that parents will choose.

Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. 

Categories: Education, Op-Ed, Politics

22 thoughts on “Op Ed: In Defense of School Choice”

  1. Penrod says:

    What is the goal of an education system?

    Is it is to produce a thoughtful, educated, self supporting populace? If so, then a variety of providers is needed, because parents and educators will disagree about the best methods for their children, and even the best topics for education. Is it to produce children who have experienced a lifetime with parents who are empowered to make choices for their children? Then a variety of option is needed.

    If it is to employ large numbers of people who are well organized, will pay dues to a union which will work to elect friendly legislators hostile to competition from different perspectives, and will reliably vote for a given political party, then a monopoly is useful.

    If the purpose is to produce adults who have never been allowed to make important choices for themselves or their own children, who have been taught to be passive when their betters dictate to them, then a monopoly is useful.

    What is the goal of an education system?

    Education, or Control?

  2. Michael Schwister says:

    Sorry Will Flanders. We know who your friends are and there isn’t a credible member in the bunch. We know who you work for and why “choice” is the avenue you promote to kill public education. We know who ALEC is and why your benefactors donate to this fascist organization. We know you don’t want a generation of critical thinkers that can interpret your bs and uncover your sick agenda through education. And no. We don’t go to school to learn how to become an obedient employee. An educated society is crucial to understanding the principles of the John Birch Society so they can be soundly rejected in public.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    Penrod how often do you set foot in public schools these days? When you imply that they are all indoctrination factories you suggest that the answer is never.

  4. GPKWH says:

    I wonder if Mr. Flanders has actually visited some of these choice schools that he says are not profit driven.

  5. Carol Lenz says:

    School “choice” and vouchers were created after the Supreme Court decisions of the 50s that ruled segregated schools to be unconstitutional. Public money, in the form of school vouchers, allowed children to attend segregation academies and avoid attending an integrated school. It is no accident that Milwaukee has had vouchers and private charters for years now.

    I respect any parent’s right to choose how to educate their child. But the current state and national push for school vouchers and private charter schools drains money from public schools, on purpose, and uses our tax money to promote segregation and discrimination.

    The results: more division and polarization. The tragic events from Charlottesville show us how dangerous our polarization has become.

    It’s not about “choice” or “failing” public schools. It’s about ideology and money. Neither good for our democracy. School “choice” is public funded self-segregation, dividing people by class, color or creed. Much like states rights was the argument for slavery.

    Public money should not be used to fund segregation and discrimination. Funding a person’s individual choice cannot take precedence over our democracy.

    We must support our community public schools, where students and families of all classes, colors and creeds learn with and about each other.

    Public schools have the power to unify our state and our country because “You can’t hate up close”. Our democracy depends on it.

  6. Flanders has trotted out this tired and misleading rhetoric before without recognizing that his view of choice allows bad choices without standards but public schools at least require follow-through on the choices that teachers and students make. Father Knows Best was an appealing sitcom, but in real life, families turn to specialists because they don’t always know best. As flattering as it is for parents to think they do, the data shows otherwise.

  7. Penrod says:

    Carol Lenz, Are you saying that private schools are for the purpose of segregation and discrimination? That seems remarkably out of date. By decades, as some inner city parents with children in private schools might tell you.

    The flip side of that though: if some private schools exist for the purpose of racial or religious discrimination, so what?

    You demand the authority to crush your fellow Americans because you disagree with their viewpoints, and yes, demand to indoctrinate their children. That demand creates strife when little is needed. You put your kids in the school of your choice, and they put their in theirs. You get tax money to further your educational goals, and so do they. You disagree with their goals -and I likely will agree with you- but they have as much right to tax dollars as we do.

    What is so difficult about allowing other people to educate their children as they see fit? You demand the right to educate other people’s children as you see fit: exactly why should I or anyone else consider that admirable? Because, counter Vincent Hanna above, if you demand the right to educate their children as you see fit, counter to their wishes and beliefs, you ARE explicitly engaging in indoctrination to counter BadThink.

    If not indoctrination, why do you deserve tax money, but people you disagree with do not?

  8. Mary Kay Wagner says:

    If what Dr. Flanders said was true, why are Choice proponents so vehemently against applying to same quality measures public schools are forced to meet to Choice schools? Currently there is no accountability structures on Choice schools to actually educate students. The system is ripe for abuse. For the most part it is not the religious schools that are abusing the system. It is the for-profit corporations that are moving in that are the real problem.
    One huge problem is Black Friday; the third Friday in September when every school submits their enrollments to the state. It is this enrollment report for which the Choice schools receive their voucher money. However, the following week, these same Choice schools begin to expel students who they deem don’t meet the school’s “education philosophy” or some other excuse. Those students end up in the public school system BUT the money to educate them stays with the Choice school. Because there is no accountability this little slight of hand has gone one for decades. In fact, some Choice schools have actually gone out of business sending all of their students back to the public schools while the Choice school officials keep the state voucher money.
    The public school systems are not against competition. However, the way the Voucher system is set up in Wisconsin is not competitive. The system is rigged for the Choice schools. As tax payers we have no guarantees that are tax money is being spent effectively or even spent on educating children. Organizations like Dr. Flanders continue to fight against establishing any kind of oversight or accountability for Choice schools. We are just suppose to trust that our tax dollars are being spent wisely. After seeing the disaster with Choice schools in New Orleans, I think we would be very foolish to trust tax dollars to Choice schools without serious verification.

  9. Carol Lenz says:

    Pernod, Of course parents can choose to educate their children anyway they wish. But our state constitution calls for the funding of PUBLIC education, with public oversight and public accountability. Our tax money should not be used to promote more polarization. Nor should it be used to teach an ideology that contradicts our Consitution. i.e. Women are less than men, LGBTQ should not have equal rights, etc. Our tax money is being used to teach discrimination. Parents can do that on their own dime, not mine. Those behind the marketing ploy of “choice” are the hedge fund managers whose eyes glaze over when they see all that public money ripe for the taking.

  10. George Mitchell says:

    Mary Kay Wagner & others operate in willful denial of the manifold regulations and accountability measures documented by Flanders’ research, which he cites but they choose not to read. As Alan Borsuk noted in a recent column the net effect has been positive.

    Carol Lenz misstates the Constitutional provisions.

    There is a unifying theme to Flanders’ critics here: they just make stuff up.

  11. Carol Lenz says:

    Wisconsin Constitution Article X District schools; tuition; sectarian instruction; released time. Section 3. [As amended April 1972] The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein; but the legislature by law may, for the purpose of religious instruction outside the district schools, authorize the release of students during regular school hours. [1969 J.R. 37, 1971 J.R. 28, vote April 1972

  12. Wait A Minute, Chester says:

    It’s odd the author chose to cite that University of Arkansas study. It’s pretty weak tea. Sure, it shows *some* marginal improvement in some areas, but none at all in others, and is hardly conclusive about the superiority of school choice. It’s like saying the Brewers were “better” in 2016 than 2015, when they went from 68 wins to 73. Yeah, okay, but still not all that impressive for all of the political Sturm and Drang it creates.

  13. George Mitchell says:

    The Wisconsin Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court have sustained school choice legislation. It is settled law.

  14. George Mitchell says:

    Yeah, it’s “odd” that Flanders would cite a scholarly study showing that Rep. Taylor’s statement is false. So what if the study shows Milwaukee choice students graduating high school and pursuing post-secondary education at higher rates than MPS peers? So what if other research shows Milwaukee choice students less likely to become involved in crime? So what if those gains occur in a program financed at about 60% of the per pupil cost of MPS. So what?

  15. Wait A Minute, Chester says:

    Simmer down, George. I’m just making an observation. You accused several posters of avoiding the studies the author cited. So I looked at one.

    This school choice thing is obviously very personal to you. If you’d like to point out how I’m wrong when you’re less emotional about it, I’m all ears. Or eyes, I guess.

  16. George Mitchell says:


    Rep. Taylor, who is in a position to know better, posted a completely false claim about the Milwaukee program. When that was pointed out in the original string, multiple commenters chimed in with more inaccuracies. Now that Will Flanders has documented Rep. Taylor’s falsehood, some of the same folks have returned with new inaccuracies. In your case, you find it “odd” that Flanders would cite one of several studies showing Rep. Taylor to be wrong. BTW, the UW’s John Witte was a part of the Arkansas-based research team.

    You knock down a straw man, i.e., the research is not “conclusive about the superiority of school choice.” The research is what it is, namely, a demonstration that in Milwaukee choice students do better than there peers at a fraction of the cost of MPS.

  17. Michael Schwister says:

    I wonder if George can explain all the political science people involved in this “study” rather than academics involved with education. It seems to me that “experts” ought to weigh in on something as important to society as education. Any study conducted by WILL or its parent organization, the Bradley Foundation is complete BS. Always has been, always will be. But for the sake of discussion, lets make believe it isn’t so. Then we get to opine while public coffers disappear into corporate welfare.

    What is a failing public school and whose responsibility is it to ensure that it works?

  18. Wait A Minute, Chester says:

    Indeed, the research “is what it is”, as I said before – weak tea. I guess you’re just easier to impress than I am.

  19. I would suggest that the author substitute ‘religious charities’ with ‘religious organizations’. They are not all charities per se.

    And if the author truly believes that there aren’t for profit concerns involved…maybe he would be amendable to changing the voucher program to specifically prevent for profit organizations from participation.

  20. Carol Lenz: “…and uses our tax money to promote segregation and discrimination.” is an unintended consequence of the voucher program in Milwaukee. It’s original intent as envisioned by Howard Fuller and others was in fact an effort to provide African American and other poor Milwaukeeans an opportunity to attend private schools.

  21. Penrod: “What is so difficult about allowing other people to educate their children as they see fit?” That option has always been there…it was when I attended a parochial school.

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