Libby Sobic and Will Flanders
As education reform gains momentum across the nation, particularly in Wisconsin, opponents of reform appear to be getting more and more desperate. In a number of different contexts recently, Wisconsin Democrats made misleading statements and told half-truths in service of protecting the public school monopoly. Here, we highlight and refute three of the biggest whoppers.
#1 – Wisconsin is 8th in Education Nationwide
Governor Evers made the claim during his state of the state that Wisconsin’s “education system” has moved from 18th to 8th in the nation during his administration, and gave the credit to increased spending in public schools. His claim appears to come from a report from US News that ranks the 50 states on their overall educational systems. However, a number of large caveats need to be attached to this data.
The report only takes into account three factors: pre-K enrollment, standardized test scores, and graduation rates. One area Wisconsin does do quite well is in the high school graduation rate, and it is without a doubt a credit to the schools around the state that ensure that students achieve high school graduation goals.
But the picture becomes far murkier when it comes to the area of student achievement. On NAEP scores, Wisconsin continues to have among the largest racial achievement gaps in the country. Proficiency rates on the state exam in some districts are below 10%, despite these districts being ranked as “Meeting Expectations” on the state’s report card. These are real problems for which the only solution from the Governor, in general, appears to be spending more money. While it may be possible to craft a metric by which Wisconsin ranks in the top ten on education, large swaths of students throughout the state are not proficient in areas like English and Math. We’re going to hold our applause on student proficiency.
Additionally, the inclusion of pre-K enrollment in this metric is curious in light of the lack of evidence that pre-K makes any appreciable difference in the academic outcomes of students. A recent random assignment study from scholars at Vanderbilt University found that students who participated in state-run pre-K programs had worse outcomes by third grade than those who did not. At the very least, program quality matters, and we shouldn’t assume that simply having more students in pre-K will improve student outcomes.
#2 Voucher Funding is a Cost to School Districts
During an Assembly Committee on Education hearing, several committee members and individuals testified about the state “defunding public education.” Many of these comments were in response to a bill proposal by Representative Wittke and Senator Roth to expand the voucher programs and create an education expense reimbursement program.
Given the committee’s interest in the testimony provided by a current school board member from South Milwaukee, correction and clarification of how funding works for public schools and private schools in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) is necessary.
South Milwaukee is a small district located on the border of Cudahy and Oak Creek and serves 2,819 students. About 50% of the students are economically disadvantaged and 14% of the students have disabilities. The district experiences a lot of in-flow and out-flow via Wisconsin’s public school open enrollment program. In 2019-20, more students transferred into South Milwaukee than left. Similarly, in 2020-21, the district still had more students transfer in than out, although the number declined substantially.
In 2021-2022, according to DPI, 105 students from South Milwaukee attended a private school in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. So, does the voucher program really “cost” South Milwaukee state funding?
South Milwaukee receives a total of $14,141 in state and local aid in the 2020-2021 school year. The state spends $8,955.00 for every student enrolled in South Milwaukee. The voucher program average cost is $8,498.77. When a student decides to use a voucher, the state uses part of South Milwaukee’s state aid and gives it to the school the student will attend. Given that the state parental choice programs are funded at a lower level than traditional public schools, there is a net of $456.23 left to South Milwaukee. This means that the district has more money for each remaining student in the district when a student leaves for private school choice.
Additionally, the state permits school districts to count the students in the voucher program and thus raise their tax levy to “make-up” for those students. If they do this, their total resources are completely unaffected by the choice of a family to use a voucher. But it has always been unclear why a district would have to “make-up” for students that they are not even educating.
#3 Additional Voucher Enrollment Will Cost Taxpayers
In response to AB 970, legislation that would eliminate income caps on the voucher program, DPI put out an estimate of the cost to local taxpayers from private school students moving to the voucher. This analysis suggests that the cost could be as much as $577 million, but leaves out a critical component: the number of public-school students that would also choose to move to a private school on a voucher.
If a student whose family is currently paying for private school moved on to the voucher, there are, indeed, some tax implications for both the state and local taxpayers. However, the way our voucher is currently funded means that if a student moves from a public school to a private school on a voucher, there is actually a resulting savings to local taxpayers. The extent of this savings varies by school district. School Choice Wisconsin has a helpful map using 2016-17 data to show the extent of the savings in every district.
Any serious effort to estimate the cost of AB 970 must take into account students who would be moving from public schools, of which there would likely be many.
In conclusion, it is unfortunate that state legislators, the DPI, and even Governor Evers continue to perpetuate myths about Wisconsin education, school funding, and school choice. The education landscape is changing, Wisconsin parents want more educational options and the ability to use their tax dollars for their child to attend a high-quality school.