Sen. Luther Olsen challenges school-choice advocates over open enrollment

 ‘This will be private-school choice without income limits’

Senate Education Chair Luther Olsen via Wiseye.org on 3/11/2020
Senate Education Chair Luther Olsen via Wiseye.org on 3/11/2020

Should students across the state of Wisconsin be allowed to spend part of their day outside their regular school, taking classes at public schools in other districts or at private and charter schools?

That was the contentious subject of debate at Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing.

Senate Bill 789, introduced by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), would expand the state’s part-time open enrollment program, which currently covers only high school students who want to take up to two classes at schools in outside their regular districts. Under the new policy, renamed the “course choice program,” public or private school kids from kindergarten through high school could take classes at any other educational institution. Public school students’ home school district would be required to cover the cost.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, Americans for Prosperity and a representative from Jeb Bush’s pro-school-choice organization ExcelinEd in Action all testified in favor of the bill.

Joe Miotke, chair of Project Lead the Way Wisconsin, a nonprofit group that sells science curriculum to school districts, including 400 Wisconsin schools, told the committee about a particularly timely course in infectious disease for high-schoolers. It is part of his organization’s effort to connect learning opportunities to the jobs of the future. “It’s unfair that interested high school students don’t have access to this course,” he said. 

The expansion of choice down to the lower grades is “exciting” and “innovative” according to Darling and school-choice advocates, including Libby Sobic, director and legal counsel of education policy for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

WILL’s Sobic pointed out that students are already showing they are willing to travel long distances to take band, engineering and AP course offerings under the current part-time open enrollment program. While the proposed open-enrollment expansion does not pay for transportation, it would give kids from poor urban districts and rural areas preference for transportation vouchers available through DPI, she added.

Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) official portrait
Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon)

But Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), the education committee chair, was skeptical. Public schools already have limited budgets, he said. “Now all of a sudden we have to write another check to a private school?”

Under current law, public school students can open-enroll in other public schools, and private school students can attend up to two courses at a time in public schools, Olsen pointed out. “What this does is to let public school kids go to private school and the public school has to pay for it.” 

But public schools could also receive money from private-school students who want to come over for certain classes, WILL’s Sobic replied:  “There’s an opportunity to create a flow of funding.”

Olsen wasn’t having it. “With open enrollment it’s never fair,” he said. “There’s losers and gainers.”

Joint Finance Committee co-chairs John Nygren and Alberta Darling (Bluebook by Joe Koshollek)
Alberta Darling (center)
(Bluebook by Joe Koshollek)

Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), who represents a large, rural district in the northernmost part of the state, pointed out that there are only three private schools in her area, and the time and money involved in traveling long distances among schools makes the kind of collaboration among schools the bill’s proponents tout unworkable. “{Rural] kids are just as entitled to all of these great things as anybody else, and it just never works out that way for rural schools. And I’m just wondering, how did you see this bill helping rural schools?”

“So you want to deny other people, because you can’t afford it,” Darling told Bewley.

“I want to make it fair,” Bewley replied.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) made a similar point, imagining that kids in high-poverty Milwaukee public schools would be unlikely to be able to get out to surrounding suburban districts to take a class or two. 

“My concern is that the kids who are in those failing schools probably wouldn’t be able to utilize this program because transportation would still be a problem,” Johnson said. “So the kids who have greater means would be able to attend classes in other districts, like, it would be nothing for a child in Homestead or something like that.”

“I hope when we look at this offering,” Darling said, “we’re not going to say we’re going to solve the whole failing school achievement gap issue because we have significant problems with that, I agree with you.”

John Forester, executive director of the School Administrators Alliance, testified against the bill on behalf of school administrators around the state, saying sending students back and forth among different classrooms in different districts would create serious complications for teachers and administrators.

Elementary school students are different from high school students, Forester added. “It’s hard to adhere to a rigid ‘course’ schedule,” for elementary teachers who need a flexible classroom environment to work well with younger kids.

At the high school level, the bill would allow a private school student to take two course “blocks” in a public school that had a “block schedule,” — which would mean spending half the day in that school. Yet that student wouldn’t count toward the public school’s enrollment for funding purposes.

The transfer of money from public to private schools was the biggest sticking point for Forester, as it was for the rest of the bill’s opponents.

“Over the last several years, the rhetoric that’s come out of the Capitol has led citizens and taxpayers to inappropriately believe that we can add thousands of private-school students to a publicly funded model without it costing anything,” Forester told the committee. “I think we all know that’s not the case.”

Olsen pressed the same point in a colloquy with Megan Cramer Novak, legislative director of Americans for Prosperity of Wisconsin, who testified in favor of the bill.

“This will be private-school choice without income limits,” Olsen told Novak. “Do you see this heading in the direction of ‘We pay for every child’s education in Wisconsin, no matter where they go’?”

Novak replied that part-time open enrollment is a limited program, offering students to take a couple of courses outside their regular school.

“This is an important step forward,” she added, “just realizing that maybe the traditional public school model doesn’t have all the courses that would help every student and to meet their interests and their needs and realizing that there should be opportunities for them to take classes elsewhere.” 

“That’s today,” said Olsen, comparing school privatization to Wisconsin’s state lottery, which morphed into a much larger gambling industry after regulations were loosened. 

Novak pointed out that the state had an open enrollment program that included private schools between 2013 and 2017, “We had this program from 2013 to 2017, with private schools participating, and I don’t think there was a ton of complaints about it from anyone saying that their taxes increased dramatically.”

“That’s because we had revenue limits,” Olsen replied. “So yeah, nobody’s taxes increased. Schools just ate it.”

In the long run, besides taking money away from public schools and giving it to private schools (which AFP clearly supports), if school-choice programs go on expanding, and if state law enshrines the right to a publicly funded private education, Olsen said, it’s going to cost taxpayers a lot of money.

“You guys care about taxes,” he added. “You guys have those discussions?”

For now, said Novak, the proposed open-enrollment expansion is small enough that it won’t have an impact on taxpayers. “If, in the future, we get to a program like that, we’d have to take a look at the overall funding formula,” she said, adding, “That’s a broader discussion for the Legislature to have in the future. And AFP would love to be a part of it.”

There is no doubt the discussion will continue.

But Olsen, who co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding and has been among the most outspoken defenders of public schools among state Republicans, at least rhetorically, is bowing out.

Last month, he announced he will not run for reelection in the fall.

Olsen disappointed his Democratic colleagues when, under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, he helped push through the statewide expansion of private-school vouchers.

The argument against that expansion was very similar to the argument Olsen made on Wednesday against the private-school open-enrollment expansion — essentially that it is an unaffordable drain on the public school system that will ultimately undermine the state’s ability to educate all children.

In the education committee hearing, when Forester, of the School Administrators Alliance,  thanked Olsen “for your service to the citizens of Wisconsin, but in particular to the children of our state,” he appeared to get a little choked up.

He also took the opportunity to make some broad points.

Challenging the proponents of expanding public funding for private schools, he sounded almost like Sen. Bernie Sanders.To WILL’s Sobic, talking about the financial burden of paying for private-school tuition on public schools, Olsen said, “Are you worried about that at all? We’re talking about the good of a few people. But what about the good of the masses?”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.