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School choice for all now

By Shannon Whitworth

Wisconsin Spotlight | Sept. 23, 2022

As kids head back to school, this year nearly two million fewer students will attend public schools, which amounts to nearly 4% of America’s K-12 students. Parents see teachers, administrators and boards whose judgment they used to trust, eschewing instruction in critical subjects for social justice indoctrination. Paradoxically, this approach continues to create a demand for school choice which even the staunchest of critics will not be able to stop.

We see similar numbers across Wisconsin. The Badger State’s public school enrollment dropped by nearly 25,000 students between 2020-2021. This loss shows no sign of recovery, as public school enrollment dropped by another 700 students in 2022. This has forced some Wisconsin schools to cut staff. Shrinking public school enrollment stands in stark contrast to the increase in private school enrollment, which, over the same time period, has grown by nearly 6,000 students.

I teach Free Enterprise at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, a choice school where over 95% of the students are economically disadvantaged, inner-city, black kids who take advantage of a school voucher to be there. It is not unusual at Milwaukee Lutheran to get 1,000 freshman applications each year to fill just over 200 spots.  At my school, proficiency rates are much higher in math and English than those at the public schools our students had available to them. There are similar success stories with choice schools throughout the city and the state. The general consensus among choice school educators is to imagine how many more lives we could positively impact if we could afford more buildings and teachers to teach even more children under our successful models.

Many states have taken action recently to expand educational options, including Arizona, which passed a school choice for all bill earlier this summer. Under this legislation, parents are given a set amount of money for each student and can decide whether that student goes to public or private school, or even utilizes home-school or hybrid programs. In May 2021, the state of Florida committed $200 million to cover 100% of private school tuition for low income students. The following month, the state of New Hampshire established Education Savings Accounts, which would include $4000-$5000 of state money which could be used to pay tuition at private schools. The states of Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia soon followed suit.

In Wisconsin, there are two major barriers to the expansion of the state’s already existing school choice programs. Students are currently only eligible for the program if their families are below a threshold income level (300% of the Federal Poverty Level). Raising that income level, or eliminating it entirely, would allow far more access to the program than there is today. Additionally, while public schools receive nearly $15,000 per year to educate a student in Wisconsin, the school choice voucher is only $8,800. Ironically, the public school that the student would have gone to receive money for up to three years for the student even though they are not attending the school. That money should be taken back and re-invested into the individual student’s education at the school they are actually attending.  This would allow choice schools to take even more students, because their educations are more properly funded. If more students could receive funding to attend schools like Milwaukee Lutheran, the impact to our system of education, especially in our inner cities, would be transformational.

What makes choice schools so much more successful than public schools? Choice schools by their very nature have to be subject to accountability to survive, and that accountability drives positive results. In Wisconsin, for example, proficiency rates for choice students on average are nearly 5% higher than their public school counterparts. And at a national level, despite having more funding in our public schools than at any other time in our nation’s history (now averaging over $16,000 per year per student), the system is worse than it’s ever been.

While parents are already voting with their feet in Wisconsin, this topic will inevitably be at the forefront of parents minds as they vote to elect our next governor this fall. Prior to the pandemic many parents were unaware what was actually being taught in their children’s classrooms. When students were educated virtually from home, parents received a window into the classroom and they didn’t like what they saw. Now that their children have returned to in-person learning, parents have been even more determined to play an active role in what’s being taught in the classroom. With Arizona now the ultimate model for school choice, moving in the direction of school choice for all will likely play a role in who Wisconsinites elect as their governor in November.

Shannon Whitworth is a Bradley Freedom Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and director of the Free Enterprise Institute at Milwaukee Lutheran High School.

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