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Pocan Op-Ed: Despite 25 Years of Failing Our Families, Taxpayer-Funded Vouchers Coming To Your School District

Dec 9, 2015
In The News

Madison 365

By Rep. Mark Pocan

In recent years, Wisconsin’s taxpayer-funded voucher program has wasted taxpayer dollars and harmed our public schools, but that’s not stopping Republican legislators from expanding this failed program. In many places, voucher programs began with a honorable intent – give low-income families in tough school districts access to the private school system. That is clearly no longer the case. Now, vouchers are being aggressively pursued by shady lobbying outfits, such as the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which seeks to take curriculum and financial control away from public accountability.

In October 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released information demonstrating that nearly 75 percent of students in the state’s newly expanded program were already enrolled in private schools. This new data reveals that only 19 percent of new statewide enrollees came from the public-school system. The evidence is clear: this program doesn’t exist to help students in need. It is nothing more than a taxpayer-funded perk for people who were already enrolled in private school. And this perk comes at the expense of our public schools.

Wisconsinites now foot the bill for select children to attend private school, who were already there, while our public schools struggle to repair leaking roofs and class sizes rapidly expand. Having two separate and unequal school systems is costly – for taxpayers and for our children.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, this year alone, Wisconsin is expected to take $258 million dollars in funding from public schools for tax-payer funded vouchers. Nationally, schools are spending close to 1.5 billion dollars on similar schemes. The American Civil Liberties Union has started to fight back, suing Nevada for its use of a voucher program to send students to for-profit religious schools on the taxpayers’ dime.

My colleague Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) and I recently formed a Public Education Caucus in Congress. The word “public” is in there for a reason. The goal of this caucus is to highlight that our public schools are working hard to serve ALL students and they have to do this with fewer resources. Voucher schools are hand-picking which students they prefer to educate, often turning down students like those with special needs. Public schools in Wisconsin educate all kids who come through their doors without discriminating against those who might have greater needs or more difficult circumstances.

Voucher schools also operate with little-to-no oversight or transparency and they are not accountable to us as taxpayers despite the fact that we are funding them. In Wisconsin several voucher schools have abruptly shut down over night after taking the tax money to educate the students. The cost to taxpayers has been a staggering $176 million and indications are this number will only increase over time. What’s worse is that public schools must then take those students back – without getting the tax money we gave to educate them – putting local schools under further financial stress.

Congress continues to work on massive budget agreements, which will have significant bearing on funding for education priorities, and it is imperative that both states and the federal government continue their commitment to invest in public schools. It’s our best and most cost-effective option for educating all of our kids.

Republicans and their lobbying arm, ALEC, have shown their hand. They are aggressively pursuing expanding this taxpayer funded scheme to Nevada, North Carolina and other state beyond Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. Earlier this year, Republicans unveiled their plans to create a federal voucher program via the legislative process while working on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Their end goal is plain. They will dismantle public education by underfunding our schools so they can point to them as failures and privatize public education, shipping off our tax dollars to unaccountable private schools.

The goal of the Public Education Caucus is to fight back and defend our public schools. We want strong, unwavering support for our public schools, teachers and those committed to ensuring all kids, regardless of their background or situation, have access to great schools that offer a sound curriculum that will prepare our kids for the workforce and make them globally competitive.

Public schools are the cornerstone of a great nation and education is a fundamental part of a government’s responsibility to its citizens. Creating a private, duplicative school system, which caters to a select group of students, is wasteful to taxpayers and does serious harm to the schools that educate the vast majority of our kids.

Public funds should be used for public education. Period.