By Will Flanders, Research Director
Governor Tony Evers’ 2021-23 budget includes a Christmas tree for teachers unions in the form of higher spending and no requirements to get kids back into the classroom. But it also represents a renewed assault on the state’s high-performing school choice and charter programs. Below are three school choice takeaways from the governor’s budget proposal.
Enrollment Caps on Choice Programs
The budget proposal includes an enrollment cap on all of Wisconsin’s school choice programs—Milwaukee, Racine and statewide. These programs serve students whose families are low-income—under 300% of the federal poverty limit in Milwaukee and Racine and under 220% of the limit statewide. The cap would begin in fiscal year 2023, using the enrollment from the 2022 school year. While an enrollment cap can sound innocuous, the practical effect would be to prevent additional students from accessing the program. Make no mistake: this freeze would make the programs unviable for many schools that participate.
Currently, enrollment in the statewide program (Wisconsin Parental Choice Program) is capped at 5% of district enrollment. This number is set to increase by 1% per year until the caps come off in 2025, when the programs reach 10% of district enrollment. Setting an enrollment cap next year would limit choice enrollment to 6% of district enrollment. This would make it impossible for school choice to flourish like it has in Milwaukee, where many schools exist to primarily to serve low-income students who would not otherwise be able to afford private schooling.
Parents clearly want educational options. Enrollment in the statewide program has grown from 499 students in 2013-14 to 11,740 students this year—an increase of more than 2200% over just eight years. This is likely because school choice has a track record of improving outcomes. WILL’s annual Apples to Apples study has found higher achievement on the Forward Exam for students in the state’s choice programs relative to traditional public schools, a finding that is supported by national data. This provision can be seen as little else than protecting public school enrollment counts.
Eliminating the OEO
The governor’s budget proposal also ends the Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO). The OEO is the state’s newest charter school authorizer. While it has only authorized three schools so far, it represents a promising avenue for charter authorization in districts that have proven to be unfriendly to charter schools. This problem is made clear when one considers high-performing charter schools like Carmen Schools in Milwaukee, that face tremendous difficulty in getting reauthorized by Milwaukee Public Schools despite being one of the best performing schools in the city. Wisconsin ought to be encouraging more charter schools, not fewer. Closing off a new avenue for charter growth in Wisconsin would be a huge step backwards.
Teacher Licensure Requirements
The budget proposal also recommends a requirement that all teachers in private schools be licensed by the state. At a time when teachers are in short supply, this provision could make it more difficult, and more expensive for private schools to keep teachers in the classroom. Perhaps Evers’ position would make sense if our state’s school choice programs were doing a poor job educating Wisconsin’s kids. But most of the available research shows the exact opposite.
Moreover, a comprehensive analysis that compared private school teachers with state certification with those who did not have certification found no difference in performance. In this context, placing additional, onerous requirements on choice schools looks like a solution in search of a problem.
Governor Evers has built a career on the votes of teachers union members, and this budget proposal represents a massive gift to these supporters who don’t like the competition that choice and charter schools provide. Indeed, this assault is a continuation of what he attempted to do in his previous budget. The state legislature stripped all of these provisions out, and we hope they will do so again. But we ought not let him get away with the claim that the budget is “doing what’s best for our kids.”