We must resist voucher expansion

by Dr. Clark Reinke Superintendent Plymouth School District

Famed author and story teller Garrison Keillor likes to poke fun at us Lutherans regarding our penchant to always have a coffee pot going anytime two or more are gathered. Following a worship service recently, I was attending one of these coffee summits when a fellow parishioner approached me and asked, “What’s with all the fuss around vouchers?” Fueled by the caffeine and my passion for public education, I spent the next hour addressing the reasons why the private school voucher expansion proposal contained in the governor’s budget is not only poor educational policy unsupported by sound educational research, but it is potentially very damaging to economic development and the quality of life we know here in Sheboygan County. That and similar encounters on the subject said that there are many that do not fully understand what private school vouchers are and the potential ramifications are for area taxpayers.

A school voucher is a certificate issued by the state, which parents can use to pay for their child’s private school education, including private schools with religious affiliation. Currently state law allows voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine and the proposal. As I write this column, reports out of State Capitol are saying a Repub- lican compromise is in the works, which will expand the program to all school districts. This should be very alarming stakeholders and taxpayers of the Plymouth School District.

Millions of dollars are being poured into Wisconsin through out of state organizations with wealthy, undisclosed donors attempting to influence elections and lobby for legislation with the purpose of moving state funds into expansion of private and even for-profit school vouchers schools. Voucher advocates mask their reasons for expansion with statements such as, “parents should have greater choice”, or “we want reform from the status quo.” On the surface, it is difficult to argue against those premises, but if you peel back the voucher onion, there are many issues to make your eyes water.

Being a superintendent of schools, most would expect me to focus my argument opposing voucher expansion on concerns around educational quality, and I could very well do that as there is a great deal that alarms me. After twenty years of private school voucher experience in Milwaukee, which is the longest running initiative in the country, academic achievement results are very suspect. Recent analysis using the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam data revealed that voucher school students achieved at equal to or worse than their counter parts in Milwaukee Public Schools. So, not only is this policy questionable from an achievement results standpoint, but the governor’s proposal has no taxpayer accountability requirements for student learning results, no requirements to accept all children, minimal accountability for how public funds are spent, or no certification requirements to ensure quality teachers and administrators.

But, the more compelling reason for all taxpayers to be concerned about voucher expansion has to do with finances. Based on data from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and experience from voucher expansion in Racine, this policy will reduce resources for public schools and raise property tax levies in affected districts. This occurs because the state would begin subsidizing private school education for students who are currently attending private schools by their own choice. Key Republican legislative leaders, who I know possess more knowledge about school finance than most in the legislature, have come out publicly expressing the same financial conclusion. They truly comprehend what former Governor Tommy Thompson did back in the early 1990’s; Wisconsin can’t afford two educational systems. This should be very concerning to all Sheboygan County residents.

Future Economic development and quality of life for Sheboygan County are dependent on the quality of our public schools. Right now there is tremendous synergy between area corporations, chambers of commerce, public school districts, Lakeshore Technical College and UW-Sheboygan, focusing on career readiness and workforce development. Together we are raising the bar for academic achievement, assisting young people in developing a vision for career opportunities particularly in the high skill manufacturing jobs that are the economic lifeblood of Sheboygan County, and leveraging our resources to expand learning opportunities in a highly efficient manner. Voucher expansion and the creation of a dual system have the potential to drive a wedge in this synergy through the redistribution of focus and resources.

Research has clearly shown that the keys to high levels of student achievement are excellent teachers, focused educational leadership, and engaged parents and community members who hold high expectations for learning and performance. We have outstanding public schools here because each of those elements is present in every community and every school. There is not a public school in Sheboygan County that I would not enroll my own grandchild. It is critical that we join together as a community to resist voucher expansion. I urge you to contact Senators Liebham and Grothman and Representatives Kestell, LaMahieu and Endsley, and tell them to support quality public schools and fiscal responsibility in Sheboygan County by saying no to voucher expansion.

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