Education

Wisconsin’s Governor Puts the Public-School Monopoly before Families

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers waits to speak at Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, Wisc., August 19, 2020. (Melina Mara/Pool via Reuters)
Democrat Tony Evers recently vetoed a bill that would have expanded educational freedom in the state just when families needed it the most.

Recently, Wisconsin governor Tony Evers vetoed a bill that would have expanded access to a statewide school-choice program that funds students instead of systems. The governor’s veto protects the K–12 public-school monopoly at the expense of families — and it comes at the tail end of a year in which the public sector repeatedly failed to provide students with adequate in-person services.

Wisconsin families living in Milwaukee and Racine can currently take a portion of the tax dollars earmarked for the children’s education to the private school of their choosing if they earn 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less (about $66,000 for a family of three). But for families living in the rest of the state, that threshold is significantly lower. The bill that Governor Evers blocked, Assembly Bill 59, would have rectified that discrepancy, applying the 300 percent cutoff to the entire state.

These arbitrary eligibility thresholds should not exist at all. All students are guaranteed a taxpayer-funded K–12 education in Wisconsin. Every single family should be able to take their children’s education dollars to the education provider of their choosing. The expansion included in Assembly Bill 59 was a step toward empowering all families while equalizing income-based eligibility across the state. It passed the Wisconsin Assembly by a vote of 60 to 36, and the Senate by a vote of 20 to twelve. (Both votes broke down strictly along party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats voting in opposition.) The bill was then vetoed by Evers, and since Republicans are a few votes short of the two-thirds supermajority of both chambers required to override a veto, the matter ended there.

Governor Evers attempted to justify his veto by saying that he “object[s] to diverting resources from school districts to private schools.” But what he fails to realize is that the money at issue doesn’t belong to the public schools in the first place. It would be absurd for anyone to argue that allowing families to choose their grocery store “diverts” funding from Walmart. It’s similarly absurd for the governor to suggest that allowing families to choose their school “diverts” funding from public schools.

Education funding is meant for educating children — not for propping up a particular public institution. Children’s education dollars should follow them to the education provider that best meets their needs, public or private. We should fund students, not systems.

We already fund students directly with Pell Grants for higher education and taxpayer-funded pre-K programs such as Head Start. We should apply the same logic to K–12 education. The current disconnect can best be explained by a difference in power. Choice is the norm in higher education and pre-K services. But K–12 choice threatens an entrenched special interest that would otherwise profit from receiving children’s education dollars regardless of their families’ preferences.

Evers must know this. In defending his veto, he essentially admitted that many families would take their children’s education dollars to other education providers if they had a real chance to pull their kids out of public schools. In effect, his argument is that public schools need to be protected from any meaningful competition.

In fact, he even noted that “participation in the [school-choice program] increased by over 30 percent in the 2019-20 school year and 25 percent in the 2020-21 school [year] with the 220 percent income threshold in place.” To the governor, that surge in demand indicates “that the current income threshold does not prevent program growth” — and preventing the program from growing is obviously his goal.

Why is that Evers goal? The reality is that thousands of additional families would have more educational options if the bill were signed into law — but those choices would threaten the power of the teachers’ unions that overwhelmingly donate to Democratic politicians, the governor included.

The veto’s timing is a slap in the face to families. It comes just after teachers’ unions fought to keep schools closed for over a year so their members could stay home while holding children’s educations hostage to secure multiple ransom payments from taxpayers. The Milwaukee teachers’ union made fake tombstones to protest the reopening of schools in fall 2020 — and joined with the Democratic Socialists of America on two occasions to “Demand Safe Schools” by calling for bans on new charter schools, private-school-choice programs, standardized tests, and police in schools.

The bottom line is that the education system is supposed to exist to meet the needs of families, not the other way around. Governor Evers has prioritized the desires of the system over the needs of thousands of students by preventing families from having educational options. Hopefully, those families will remember to prioritize the needs of their children over the desires of power-hungry politicians at the ballot box.

Corey DeAngelis is the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation.

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