Commentary

Lies, damn lies and school voucher statistics

May 13, 2021 6:30 am
Business chart image with human figures falling off the end of the declining graph line

Business chart (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal)

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has been making national news lately, with its director, Rick Esenberg, appearing on Tucker Carlson to discuss WILL’s case against the Biden administration alleging racial and gender discrimination for offering COVID relief to Black farmers, and a new lawsuit opposing aid to minority and women-owned businesses. 

The lawsuits’ twisted logic — that white, Wisconsin dairy farmers and a male bar owner in Tennessee are harmed by programs that seek to correct historic discrimination — gives you a pretty good idea of where WILL is coming from.

So it’s no surprise that the group also lines up with Wisconsin’s powerful private school voucher lobby, or that it offers some eyebrow-raising claims on behalf of public funding for private schools. 

In a recent blog post for the website Right Wisconsin, WILL’s research director, Will Flanders, attacks a piece I wrote in the Examiner last week on the growing cost of private school vouchers, which he calls a “false portrayal of the costs of school vouchers.”

Flanders puts scare quotes around “growing cost,” as if it were somehow debatable whether Wisconsin is devoting more and more of its education budget to private school programs. It’s a silly start, since easily accessible data on the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) website shows the year-to-year growth of the voucher program. The statewide Wisconsin School Choice program, which began with 511 kids in the 2013-14 school year now has an enrollment of 12,111 kids. The costs of that program have grown from just over $3 million for the statewide program in 2013-14 to $76 million this year.

Adding together the costs of statewide vouchers with the Racine School Choice Program and the Special Needs Voucher Program for 2019-20, as I reported based on DPI data, local property taxpayers spent about $108.6 million on the three programs combined.

But Flanders writes that my story “misses some key facts, seemingly in an effort to paint the programs in a negative light.”

It should be obvious, he asserts, “that we should no longer fund schools for students who leave the system.” In other words, if kids want to go to private school, public schools shouldn’t keep getting money to support those students. But that entirely misses the point. Wisconsin is now funding two separate school systems, one public and one private, out of a single limited pot of state education funds. That is causing a heavy financial burden on public schools. Local property taxpayers are voting, over and over again, to make up the difference and raise their own taxes to sustain their public schools.

Flanders asserts that property taxpayers needn’t bother. Their public schools are better off if kids take private school vouchers, he writes, because, he claims, it is a cost savings for schools to see their enrollments decline. Any rural public school board member can tell you that is nonsense. Declining enrollments are causing schools to close all over sparsely populated rural areas of Wisconsin. It doesn’t cost less to maintain a building or keep programs going when students leave. As populations decline, schools are strapped, and towns are losing the heart of their communities, as kids board the bus for a long ride to a far-away school. 

Flanders’ analysis is sloppy and misrepresents simple math. But the central piece of misinformation he is peddling is important to understand. The “biggest falsehood presented in Coniff’s [sic] piece,” he writes, is that the “majority of choice students [were] already in private school.”

The fact that Wisconsin taxpayers are footing the bill for private school tuition, mostly for families who never even had their kids in public school in the first place, is highly unpopular. And private school voucher advocates take pains to obscure that fact, arguing, falsely, that the Department of Public Instruction is somehow misleading the public about this. I’ve written about that debate previously.

Here is Flanders’ contribution: DPI data “only lists where a student attended school in the previous year, not where they came from initially,” he writes. Therefore, he argues, many kids could have entered the voucher program from public schools years ago only to be later counted as students who came into the program from private schools. I already addressed this argument, made by School Choice Wisconsin’s Jim Bender. Flanders even links to my piece, in which I point out that the argument is a nonstarter. DPI posts the historical data right on its website.

Here’s what that data shows: In the first year for which there are numbers available, the 2013-14 school year, there were 511 kids in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program; 370 came from private school and 106 came from public school.

For every year after that, DPI breaks out the number of students in the program who came from private and public school, and, in addition, provides the number who were already in the voucher program for the prior year.

Guess what? Every single year, the number of private school kids who were new to the voucher program is bigger than the number of kids who came from public school.

But, as the saying goes, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with b.s. Flanders offers this logical-sounding, quasi-numerical argument, spiced up with a little ad hominem attack, in place of the facts:

“With the income threshold for choice outside of Milwaukee and Racine set at 220% of the federal poverty line, precious few of the students enrolled in private school choice could likely afford private education in the absence of the program.”

“A serious journalist,” he adds, “would not report the numbers as Coniff [sic] has here, and this can be seen as little more than an attempt to make the program look bad.”

Sorry, that’s not me making vouchers look bad. It’s the mirror. 

The numbers are very clear. In 2014-15, there were 1,008 voucher students in the statewide program; 858 came from private school and 101 from public school. DPI acknowledges that 475 of those private school kids were already in the voucher program (remember that the program started the year before with about 500 students, most of whom came from private school). So 383 new private school kids entered the program in the second year and started receiving vouchers. That’s more than three and times the number who came from public schools. And most of the returning students also came, initially, from private school.

Every year, the statewide voucher program has enrolled more new students from private school than from public school. As the program grew from 511 kids in 2013-14 to 12,111 in 2020-21, the number of new students who came from a private school where they did not previously get a voucher has invariably been larger than the number who went to public school in the previous year. Together with the kids who have remained in the voucher program year after year (most of whom also came from private school), their numbers dwarf the public school kids who participate in the program. Altogether, kids who were in private school last year (voucher and non-voucher combined) make up 77% of the enrollment in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program this year.

Yes, there is are income caps for voucher students when they first enter the program, but Flanders’ assumption that that means they couldn’t afford private school tuition before they got a voucher is demonstrably false. And here is another important tidbit about that income cap, from DPI’s FAQ on eligibility for the Wisconsin, Racine or Milwaukee parental choice programs: “Continuing students and students on a prior year waiting list are not required to meet income limits.”  Once you’re in the voucher program, or even waiting to get in, you remain eligible no matter how much money your family earns.

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Meanwhile, as public schools struggle to serve students, the cost of the choice programs is set to balloon. Because school vouchers are among a handful of programs labeled “sum sufficient” in the state budget, we have committed to continue to pay for the program as it grows, no matter the cost.

Former Republican State Sen. Dale Schultz put it this way, in an exit interview in the Cap Times, in which he decried the growing cost of school-choice programs, and the devastating impact on rural schools making do with less: “Out my way, I would not be shocked if a huge percentage of school districts wind up going to referendum to have the privilege of raising their own property tax because the state has walked away from its principal responsibility of providing for a free, appropriate and near equal education for everybody.”

“We can’t afford one system in this state,” he added. “How we are going to ever have ourselves in a situation of trying to fund two is beyond me.”

Principled Republicans like Schultz are an endangered species these days, as ousted leader House GOP leader Liz Cheney can attest. 

Who knows, maybe a new conservative movement will be born, with some loyalty to truth and the common good.

But don’t look to WILL to lead it.

At the end of his piece, Flanders abruptly throws aside his “researcher” hat and throws a punch at Wisconsin Republicans’ favorite target: school teachers.

“We now know, definitively, that teachers unions put their own interests ahead of kids when it comes to school reopenings,” he concludes. “Is it so much of a stretch to think that their rhetoric on school choice is equally reflective of selfish motivations?”

Well, I’m not a teacher, but I’ll respond on behalf of my kids’ beleaguered educators, who have endured budget cuts, disrespect, and now the demand that they get back in the classroom during the pandemic, even if it means some of them will have to drop dead. The idea that it’s “selfish” for teachers to want protection from a deadly virus is right up there with Black farmers stealing money from white people. 

And if you are relying on WILL and the rest of the school choice lobby’s presentation of the facts to make decisions about the future of our state, hold on to your wallet.

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Ruth Conniff
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.

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