School voucher lobby flexes its muscles in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is adding more publicly funded private schools

By: - February 2, 2022 6:00 am
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. By Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog group that tracks money in politics, named the American Federation for Children (AFC) its “influence peddler of the month” for February. 

The federation is headquartered in Washington, DC, but has spent millions of dollars on Wisconsin elections. Founded by rightwing Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, who served as Secretary of Education under former President Donald Trump, it is among the top 10 special interest group spenders in Wisconsin, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. In 2020, the group spent $600,000 on nine legislative races. 

The top recipients of the federation’s PAC and conduit contributions through June 2021, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, were:

Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, $18,500,

Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, $7,450,

Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) $4,250,

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) $4,000,

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) $4,000,

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) $4,000,

Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) $4,000,

Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) $3,800.

The federation “generally targets a handful of Assembly and Senate races to help the GOP maintain or increase its margin of legislative control,” the Democracy Campaign states in a press release on AFC. “In return, the GOP, which has controlled both houses of the Legislature for much of the past 12 years, has sharply expanded the enrollment limits, eligibility, and state spending on school vouchers.”

Late last week, one recipient of AFC support, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) announced a package of bills that aim to dissolve the Milwaukee Public School District by 2024, replacing it with four to eight smaller districts, and expand private-school vouchers to every student, regardless of family income.

This is the latest step in a years-long effort by state Republicans to expand public funding for private schools through school vouchers — an effort Betsy DeVos, who has declared that “government really sucks” and pronounced public schools a “dead end” aggressively supports. 

From January 2010 thru June 2021, the American Federation for Children spent $3,265 on Darling, including $2,000 in PAC contributions, $250 in conduit contributions (individual contributions through AFC’s conduit) and $1,015 in independent expenditures, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. 

In addition, Sourcewatch reports that AFC spent $500,000 to defend several Republican Senators who faced recall elections in 2011, including Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls), and Darling. “Of this sum, nearly half ($230,000) was spent in favor of Sen. Darling, who as the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee was a primary architect of the massive $800 million cuts to Wisconsin’s public schools and increases in funding of private voucher programs,” Sourcewatch reports.

Darling’s pro-voucher, anti-MPS bills are cosponsored by her colleagues Sen. Roger Roth, (R-Appleton) and Reps. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) Bob Wittke, (R-Racine) and Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger).

“Our package addresses the growing demand to empower parents to tailor their children’s individual education, establish accountability, and encourage collaboration between parents and educators,” Darling said in a statement touting the bills she and her co-authors plan to introduce this week.


But Milwaukee School Board President Bob Peterson called Darling’s plan a “recipe for chaos,” telling Wisconsin Public Radio, “It’s one more attempt to get rid of Milwaukee Public Schools and get rid of the democratically elected school board.” 

The siphoning of public money into private schools has accelerated dramatically over the last decade in Wisconsin.

Under former Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans lifted the income cap for school vouchers— and changed the rules so that once a family qualifies for a voucher, no matter how much money the parents make, the children remain voucher-eligible. That transformed a program that, when it started as an experiment in Milwaukee with bipartisan support under former Gov. Tommy Thompson, was billed as a way for low-income, minority kids to get out of crumbling public schools. When the program expanded to the city of Racine in 2011, half of all new voucher recipients were students who had never attended public school. Taxpayers were simply picking up the tab for families who already sent their kids to private school.

The statewide Wisconsin School Choice program began with 511 kids in the 2013-14 school year. By 2020-21 it had grown to enroll 12,111 students. The costs of that program also grew, from just over $3 million in 2013-14 to $76 million in 2020-2021. 

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign crunched the state data to report that state spending on Wisconsin’s three voucher programs — in Milwaukee and Racine and for the statewide program — came to more than $2.6 billion between 2011 and 2021. 

And the programs continue to grow.

Next year the Milwaukee Parental Choice program will add two new private schools, bringing its total to 131 schools, the Racine Parental Choice program will add four new private schools, and the statewide parental choice program will add 23 private schools to reach 324. 

Public school advocates object that the state cannot afford two separate school systems, one public and one private, and that vouchers are putting a strain on local public schools, moving per-pupil spending out of the public school districts where the students reside.

On Thursday, Milwaukee Democrats Rep. Jonathan Brostoff and Sen. Chris Larson reintroduced the Public Education Reinvestment Act, which would phase out the school voucher program altogether, saying they want to “strengthen our state’s public schools and put Wisconsin on the path to ending the failed voucher school experiment that has undermined our state’s education system for too long.” 

“Public education in Wisconsin and the United States remains under attack. School privatizers and their allies in public office have done all they can to gut our state and nation’s public schools while forcing taxpayers to pay for their failed voucher experiment,” Brostoff and Larson said in a statement. “Today, with this bill, we loudly and proudly declare that Wisconsin families should no longer have to foot the bill for two school systems, and that every kid in our state deserves access to high-quality public education.”

A separate “voucher transparency” bill, introduced by Larson and Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) and cosponsored by Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) would require that taxpayers be informed on their property tax bill how much of their taxes are going to fund school vouchers.

“In the Eau Claire Area School District, we spend over $2 million every year on private voucher schools, for everything from busing to special education,” said Emerson. “These schools get paid first and then our public schools get the leftovers and have to do with whatever is left.”

“I have no problem with private schools,” Emerson added. “I spent my elementary years in a private school, but it was a decision that my parents made and they paid for it out of their own pocket. Today, some private schools get large amounts of money from taxpayer dollars but operate outside of taxpayer oversight.”

Neither the Democratic bills nor the Republican bills have been taken up in the education committee, which Darling chairs.

This story was updated on Feb 2 at 11:34 am to include information from Sourcewatch.

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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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.