The following blog post was written by Dr. Will Flanders, WILL Research Director, and Libby Sobic, WILL Associate Counsel.
SOS Wauwatosa, an anti-School Choice group, has put out a candidate questionnaire that purports to seek the honest opinions of candidates in the state on issues of education. However, several of the questions that they ask are so biased and leading that it would be nearly impossible for a candidate to answer them in any way other than in opposition to giving families educational options. Many of these questions are similar to red herrings that WILL has addressed in the past, and we take a moment here to address them again.
- According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, state public education funding is $3.5 billion below 2011 levels. Furthermore, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Wisconsin has fallen below the national average in per pupil funding. And yet Marquette University polling shows that 80% of Wisconsin voters support increasing public school funding. What will your approach be to public school funding if you are elected? Will you restore state funding to public schools and bring our per pupil spending above the national average?
During the Great Recession, the state’s total General Purpose Revenue (GPR) declined by nearly $1 billion dollars (8%) over the course of a single year due to declining tax receipts. The federal government poured federal funds into the state that allowed the state to maintain funding at pre-Recession levels. However, this funding was temporary and eventually declined. Every year since 2012, Governor Walker and Republicans have increased K-12 education spending. In 2016-17, the average amount spent per student was $10,439. In 2017, Governor Walker increased K-12 spending to near-record highs even after accounting for inflation and will result in more than $400 above the previous per student height of the stimulus by 2019.
A more important question is whether people in the state actually know the significant amount we are spending on every student. A recent WILL survey also found that among Democrats, approximately 85% of respondents underestimated the amount of spending per student while only 8.7% fell in the correct range. Republicans were significantly less likely to underestimate spending but more than 73% still underestimated the average per pupil amount spent in Wisconsin. The survey found that all partisan subgroups become less likely to say that spending on public schools is too low when told the true level of spending in Wisconsin’s public schools.
- The State Legislature expanded voucher schools statewide starting in the 2013-14 school year. This allows taxpayer money to be spent on private schools. However, unlike public schools, private voucher schools are not held to the same rules (including federal civil rights laws, protections for students with disabilities, teacher certification requirements, etc.) What is your position on using public money for private schools? Will you support legislation to ensure that all schools receiving public funding play by the same rules?
Private schools participating in a voucher program must adhere to state and federal standards and in fact, must meet more regulations than public schools. State law requires private schools participating in any voucher program to have accreditation, which means degreed teachers, appropriate curriculum, accountable board governance, maintenance of students’ records, and a school environment conducive to learning. The private school must follow strict financial standards and participate in several annual audit that reviews how the voucher amounts are spent including GAAP audits, enrollment audits and fiscal practices audits, all performed by licensed and independent CPAs. Additionally, the private school is required to meet the same health and safety requirements as public schools. To prevent abuse of state funds, state law permits DPI from preventing a new private school from opening if it fails to meet a variety of financial regulations including annual audits, valid occupancy permits and proof that the private school administrator participated in a mandatory financial management course.
Private schools in the voucher program are not allowed to discriminate any students and must follow federal discrimination laws. State law requires the school to accept students based on a random basis, should the school have not have enough seats for the number of applications. In fact, a private school in a voucher program may only prioritize siblings of current students and the enrollment processes by private schools are monitored annually by the State Superintendent. 
Furthermore, despite concerns that private schools in the voucher program discriminates against students, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found no evidence of discrimination
If anything, the evidence is growing that private school choice in Milwaukee is overregulated rather than under regulated. New research shows that school participation in the city might be improved by loosening the reins on the school choice regulatory environment.
- Currently, local property tax bills show the amount of money that goes to local public school districts, but districts are required to send some of this money to fund private voucher schools with no notice on property tax bills. Do you support local taxpayers’ right to know how much of their property taxes are being diverted to subsidize private voucher schools? What will you specifically do to support transparency on this issue?
While we are generally supportive of governmental transparency, this is a move clearly designed to influence public opinion in opposition to private school choice. The funds “diverted” to pay for school choice represent merely a portion of the revenue that the district received for that student. As we have pointed out before, it is no more logical that the school district continue to receive revenue for a kid it no longer educates than it is for Walmart to continue to receive money from a former shopper who now goes to Target. Moreover, spending on vouchers is still spending on kids who live in the district, so it is unclear why the recipient of that spending is any more important than the distribution of funds to each public school in the area. The only way this information could be accurate rather than serving to misinform would be if it also included the savings to local property taxpayers identified by those either switching from public school or choosing a voucher over a public school in Kindergarten.
Leading questions are not helpful when trying to have an honest debate on an issue as important as private school choice. While it would be nice to expect SOS Wauwatosa to amend their survey to produce fairer questions, we won’t hold our breath.