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OPINION - School voucher program in danger

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  The Wisconsin School Choice Program is a success story. But you need to watch what’s happened in Washington over the past five years to see why the program is in trouble, and might be killed off.

Here’s the history: the beginnings of the school voucher program were planted in 1990 in Milwaukee. Governor Tommy Thompson was a supporter. It was a landmark program: public dollars being used as tuition vouchers for private (and sometimes religious) schools. The program grew under Governor Scott McCallum. It was such a success that even Governor Jim Doyle, who served the state teachers union loyally and collected generous campaign contributions from them, allowed the program to survive. He made less money available for vouchers, and carefully limited the number of students in the program, but he never had the stomach for an all-out fight to shut the program down. Scott Walker wants to expand it to other school districts.

And now, out of left field, comes a letter from the Justice Department’s Human Rights Division. They allege that some private schools that accept vouchers are more-likely to expel and less-likely to enroll disabled students from Milwaukee and Racine. As a point of information, the human rights division’s name is self-fulfilling – when they open a file, they’ve often pre-determined that there’s a violation. The investigation provides the back-up.

Private schools do, indeed, get to pick and choose which students they allow to attend. And private schools may not be able to have all the staff and programs for students with learning disabilities to succeed. When a private school accepts a student, for instance, with ADHD, it’s entirely possible that the student won’t succeed there and will wind up being suspended or gets kicked out. The Justice Department says that’s a human-rights violation.

There are several bad outcomes from the DOJ letter. First, private schools will be more reluctant to be a part of the voucher program. They can avoid the fight by dropping out. The alternative is to accept new regulations from the state or the Feds which would fall on them only because they do accept vouchers. Or the state could pick a fight, and allow the matter to go to court. Governor Walker wisely wants to avoid this. It’s unwise to litigate against a deep-pocketed opponent. The other alternative is to make changes to state law and state school regulations that satisfy the DOJ’s objections. This is the best of the bad options. The DOJ would essentially take over the school voucher program. They could shut it down if the state doesn’t comply.

What are the Feds really angling for here? The clue comes from 2009, when the Obama Administration’s Department of Education made one of its first decisions of the new administration. They shut down Washington DC’s school choice program, which was modeled on Wisconsin. There was no warning – and there was no grace period for students who were already enrolled to graduate without having to change school. ‘Voucher kids’ were thrown back into the same public schools that they and their families were trying to escape. The feds could do it because they have special oversight authority in the District of Columbia. The message was sent; it just now is being heard in Wisconsin.

Supporters of school vouchers would like to see Scott Walker stand tall and defend the program. Truth is, the DOJ has a stronger hand, and can stay in the fight longer. If that’s the situation, should Walker re-consider a private school tuition tax credit? It’s not as beneficial for poor families as the voucher program is… but tax credits are out of the reach of the Washington bureaucrat, and, as we’ve found out in the last few days, the voucher program isn’t.

Chris Conley
5.7.13