The Truth About Wisconsin’s Education Reform Bills

By: Libby Sobic and Will Flanders

Several education reform bills advance to the Wisconsin senate floor tomorrow. This blog addresses four different misunderstandings about the bills—AB 970 / SB 974, AB 963 / SB 962 and AB 968 / SB 964.

  1. Expanding school choice programs will cost property taxpayers over $500 million. (AB 970 / SB 974)

The Department of Public Instruction has estimated that expanding school choice will cost taxpayers over $500 million. This DPI estimate rests on faulty assumptions that would not occur in the real world.  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. (For a more in depth explanation, we have previously covered this objection here, and the Badger Institute later voiced similar points here.)

However, the way the voucher programs 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.

The DPI “cost” is based on the assumption that every student currently enrolled in a private school who qualifies for a voucher, would begin using a voucher. This is not a guarantee.

Here’s why: private schools must identify the number of seats available for students in the voucher program. Some private schools limit choice enrollment due to the low level at which the voucher is funded. This was recently covered when HOPE Christian High School announced they were closing their doors and focusing on K-8 schools due in large part to the funding gap in the voucher program. Other private schools don’t participate at all for a myriad of reasons, including the extent to which they would be required to comply with state requirements for testing and auditing.

The bottom line is that the scenario DPI lays out—where 100% of current private school kids participate and no current public-school kids do—will not occur in reality, and therefore is a strawman defense of the status quo.

  1. Parents will takeover public schools if we give them too much power. (AB 963 / SB 962) 

SB 962 addresses specific obstacles that public-school parents navigate daily. In response to these challenges, this bill creates a statutory and legal right for parents and guardians to make the best decisions for their individual child and their child’s education.

Case law is clear that the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts currently recognize the “inherent right” of parents to “direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” This means parents are the primary decision-makers with respect to their minor children, and therefore creates a legal standard for state infringement on fundamental rights of parents and guardians through specific items enumerated in the bill. It also gives parents and guardians a way to hold their district accountable for their actions if the district is found to be failing to meet the requirements of this legislation. These provisions are important because districts are failing to meet these requirements today.

Several of the legislation’s requirements already exist in state or federal laws for public schools. For example, the federal Pupil Rights Amendment gives parents the right to inspect instructional material used as part of the education curriculum and requires districts to have a policy that permits parents to visit their children at school.

While the hope is that local school districts would be responsive to parents’ questions and concerns, all too often that is not the case.  For instance we have seen this in WILL’s cases against school districts over their gender policies, WILL research on access to information about what is happening in the public school classroom, and efforts to help parents use existing federal law to access their child’s classroom  or be notified about surveys given to the students. This legislation will help change the dynamic—empowering parents to know more information about their child and ensuring that the district is treating the parents as an equal partner in the education of their child

  1. We already have enough public charter schools.  (AB 968 / SB 964) 

Since the early 1990s, Wisconsin has grown the list of approved entities that can authorize charter schools. Today, in addition to local school districts, there are seven categories of government entities that can authorize charter schools. The number of entities that can approve charter schools is often used by opponents to justify not adding more. But the reality is that most entities approved to authorize charters do not. In fact, out of 34 entities, only 5 of them—about 14%—actually use it.

Government Entity with Authorizing Power Number of Charter Schools 2021-22
Common Council of the City of Milwaukee 7
Waukesha County Executive 0
College of Menominee Nation 0
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College 2
UW-System Office of Educational Opportunity 7
Any Chancellor of the UW System   
UW-Milwaukee 15
UW-Parkside 1
UW-Eau Claire 0
UW-Green Bay 0
UW-La Crosse 0
UW-Madison 0
UW-Oshkosh 0
UW-Platteville 0
UW-River Falls 0
UW-Stevens Point 0
UW-Stout 0
UW-Superior 0
UW-Whitewater 0
Each technical college district board  
Gateway Technical College 0
Blackhawk 0
Fox Valley 0
Lakeshore 0
Madison College 0
Mid-State 0
Moraine Park 0
Nicolet College 0
Northcentral 0
Northeast 0
Northwood Tech 0
Southwest 0
Waukesha County 0
Western 0

SB 964 is the right response to the lack of participating authorizers and increased demand from Wisconsin parents. By creating The Charter School Authorizing Board, SB 964 gives the board the authority to authorize additional independent charter schools. This board could have a statewide focus and expand charter schools into new areas across the state.

Currently, many of the 32 independent charter schools are limited to urban areas, such as Milwaukee and Madison. Creating another authorizer that is not regionally specific will expand the options available for school leaders and parents. SB 964 also creates a board that is represented by DPI, the state legislators and community members.  These appointments are able to represent the various communities across the state.

  1. School choice programs are failing and the state shouldn’t invest more resources. 

Parents want more educational options for their children. We know this because parents are voting with their feet—more than 18% went to a public charter school, a voucher school or used open enrollment last year. Recent polling from both School Choice Wisconsin and the Marquette Law School Poll has found strong support for empowering families to have more control of where their education dollars are spent.  It’s no wonder that when these schools outperform their public-school peers academically, achieve better life outcomes for their students, and lack the bureaucracy of public-school administrations.

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