WILL Blog | Szafir: School Choice, Congress, and Wisconsin’s Senators

Although K-12 education policy is primarily a state and local issue, Congress is on the verge of passing two major pieces of education legislation – the reauthorization of the Washington, DC voucher program and the rewrite of No Child Left Behind.  This is the first of two WILL blog posts that analyze these topics.

School Choice, Congress, and Wisconsin’s Senators

The Badger State is home to the nation’s oldest – and one of the largest – school choice programs.  We are proud that our student voucher program has been replicated, and in some cases improved upon, throughout the country.

One example is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which federally funds vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools in Washington D.C.  The school choice program was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004.

Because of this, there are currently more than 1,500 children who use a voucher to attend 48 different private schools in the city.  Schools can be religious or non-religious.  The scholarships are worth $12,572 for students in high school and $8,381 for elementary or middle schools.  Children are eligible if they live in Washington D.C. with a household income at or below 185% of the federal poverty threshold.

By many accounts, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a success.  Critics argue that it lacks accountability and permits children to attend some schools “that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings.”  But, parents are clearly satisfied.  92% of parents who use a voucher are either very or somewhat happy with their child’s academic progress and 93% are very or somewhat happy with their child’s private school.

One reason for the popularity is the astonishingly high graduation rates for children in the program, especially when compared to children in D.C. Public Schools.  In 2012, 97% of children in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 12th grade graduated from high school (91% of which went to college).  In comparison, only 55% of students at D.C. Public Schools graduated from high school.  In 2010, an evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program – based upon a random assignment analysis, i.e. “the gold standard” – found that vouchers in D.C. “raised students’ probability of completing high school by 12 percentage points overall.” (the study also found that, at the time, there “is no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement.”)

But, because funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is set to expire on October 1, 2016, it must be reauthorize by Congress and President Obama.

The House of Representatives did their part.  On October 2, led by former Speaker John Boehner before his retirement, the House passed a reauthorization bill, “Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR).”  The vote, 240-191, was mostly on party lines (Wisconsin Republicans all voted yes, Democrats all voted no).

All eyes are now on the U.S. Senate, where reauthorization is being pushed by a bipartisan group of Senators – Feinstein (D-CA), Booker (D-NJ), Scott (R-SC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI)  (S.B. 2171).  The bill had a hearing in the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, chaired by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, and is awaiting a committee vote.

Senator Johnson is touting Wisconsin’s choice programs as a big reason for his support behind the DC voucher program.  “Wisconsin’s groundbreaking school choice programs have proven that when you give low-income families the opportunity to choose better schools for their children, those children are much more likely to succeed and break the cycle of poverty,” said Senator Johnson in press release.

Yet, in stark contrast, Wisconsin’s other senator, Tammy Baldwin, has been very quiet about the issue.  This is so even though more than 30,000 of her constituents in Wisconsin use a voucher to attend a private school of their choosing.  This is so even though the DC voucher program is strongly supported by some of her Senate Democrat colleagues.  Senator Feinstein proclaimed on the Senate floor that without the DC Scholarship Program, “D.C.’s most disadvantaged students would not have access to a high-quality education.”

While it would be unfortunate for Senator Baldwin to oppose giving more families in D.C. the freedom to choose their own school, it wouldn’t be shocking.  In 2011, as a member of the House of Representatives, Baldwin voted against reauthorization of the D.C. Scholarship Program.

Her silence is not alone.  President Obama, who sends his daughters to an expensive private school in D.C., has not yet committed to giving poor families the same opportunity of school choice as they do.  (His past budgets have tried to defund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.)

There are few meaningful votes on school choice that members of Congress actually take.  This is one of them.  Stephen Moore, writing for the Wall Street Journal, profiled parents with children in the D.C. Scholarship Program:

“If you’ve got a program that’s clearly working and helping these kids, why end it?” asks Pamela Battle, whose son Carlos received a voucher and was able to attend the elite Georgetown Day School. He’s now at Northeastern University in Boston. She says Carlos “almost surely wouldn’t have gone to college” without the voucher. “We send all this money overseas for foreign aid,” she adds, “why not save the kids here at home first?”

Those are great questions.  And here’s another.  In deciding whether to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, will Senator Baldwin stand with children or the teachers’ unions?

CJ Szafir is Associate Counsel and Director of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty

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