Milwaukee — “Nobody in Washington knows a damn thing about education,” Kentucky’s junior senator tells a crowd of Latino students and parents gathered Wednesday to hear from the Tea Party’s rising star and to show their support for Wisconsin’s voucher program.
Rand Paul says he’s visiting Milwaukee’s St. Anthony School, the nation’s largest K–12 Catholic school, where 99 percent of the students are voucher recipients, in part to pay homage to the city, which he refers to in an interview as “the home of school choice.”
Milwaukee became home to the country’s first structured school-voucher program in 1990, when a Democratic state legislator, Annette Polly Williams, bucked the Democratic-party orthodoxy to push the legislation through the state house. It was later expanded to include religious schools like St. Anthony, whose student body has jumped by 150 students a year for the past ten years.
In his remarks, and chatting with students and parents enrolled in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, Paul calls education a “great equalizer” and describes school choice as a “fundamentally American” value.
Teachers should be compensated like pro athletes, he argues, paid more and more on the basis of their talent and star quality, and it should be permissible under a voucher program for tax dollars to go to a religious school like St. Anthony. “It’s not public money, it’s your money,” he says, pushing back on those who argue that the law prohibits federal and state education funds from flowing to religious institutions.
The morning’s talk was not all serious, though. When Paul turns to a ninth-grade student, a voucher recipient, and asks what she wants to do when she finishes high school, the 14-year-old, in a nod to the bitter winter that can still be felt in the air, responds, “When I finish high school, I plan on moving to Florida.”
For now, the senator is avoiding the fractious politics that have made school choice a divisive issue in Wisconsin: whether families should have to meet income restrictions to be eligible for voucher programs (to qualify for Milwaukee’s program, a student’s family must have an adjusted gross income at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, though that restriction is being phased out); what kind of quality control should be imposed on the schools that participate in the programs; and just how much each voucher should be worth (right now, between $7,000 and $8,000 in Milwaukee depending on the student’s grade level).
Those issues have sparked bloody political battles in voucher states like Wisconsin. “The exact ways the programs are set up is more of a state issue,” Paul tells me, “but I think the more school choice the better, so I would really allow everybody to have school choice regardless of income. I think for political reasons it’s been easier just to start with some. What I see is it’s a great advantage for everybody that I’ve seen participating in it.”
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker caused an uproar when he proposed — and the state legislature passed — a budget in 2011 that lifted the cap on enrollment in the voucher program and began to phase out income restrictions that kept wealthier students out. Critics, some of whom had championed the original 1990 legislation creating the program, charged that the reforms would destroy the city’s public-school system and undermine its original purpose, which was primarily to provide opportunities to underprivileged children.
“The governor’s plan would dramatically change the program’s social justice mission and destroy its trailblazing legacy as the first and still one of the few in the nation that uses public dollars to help equalize the academic options for children from low-income and working-class families,” Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools and a supporter of program when it was introduced in 1990, wrote in a 2011 op-ed. “I will never support a plan that will no longer give low-income families a leg up and will instead give those of us with means even greater means to leverage the limited number of private school options to the disadvantage of low-income families.”
For Paul, Wednesday’s visit followed another on Tuesday to Josephinum Academy in Chicago, where the senator framed school choice as an issue through which Republicans can reach young and minority voters who for decades now have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic party. “We could use a few more votes,” he said Tuesday.
With a potential 2016 presidential bid in sight, Paul’s swing is part of larger push and a broader set of policy proposals he has embraced in an attempt to show he can get a hearing from a demographic that Republicans have not traditionally courted. “School choice has kind of been a think-tank issue,” he explained. “It’s been a conservative philanthropist issue, and it’s been kind of associated with the Republican party, but it hasn’t been an integral part of the Republican message.” The senator’s trip, he says, is an attempt to change that.
He spoke last year at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C., to a meeting of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and to the Detroit Economic Club, where he introduced the idea of “economic-freedom zones” within certain urban areas where taxes are reduced in an effort to spur economic activity. He has led an effort on Capitol Hill to reform mandatory sentencing laws that disproportionately affect the African-American population.
It will be a while before Paul is forced to wade into the political minefields surrounding the issue of school choice. For now, he is steering clear and nobody is asking too many questions. On Wednesday, he got a warm reception and a standing ovation just for showing up.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.