How anti-government ideologues targeted Wisconsin public schools 

September 5, 2023 5:21 am
a row of three yellow school buses

Wisconsin is at the center of a national right-wing effort to privatize public schools that has had terrible results for kids. | School buses Getty Images

Now that the new school year has started, I’ve been volunteering on the Madison East High School cross-country team, trying to keep up with 80 or so kids as they run through Madison’s east side neighborhoods and around the fields behind the school.  

A former East runner myself, I’ve always been a Purgolder partisan. All three of my kids have been shaped by the down-to-earth culture of East High School, with its hallmark quirkiness, warmth and inclusive ethic that, to me, captures the social value of public school.

To be sure, there are glaring inequities among public schools in Wisconsin. These are on display to East kids whenever they travel for meets away from their school, with its aging facilities and World War II-era cinder track, to the groomed fields and gleaming stadiums of some of their competitors.

Still, the inequities among public schools in richer and poorer property tax districts are nothing compared to the existential threat to public education from a parallel system of publicly funded private schools that has been nurtured and promoted by a national network of right-wing think tanks, well funded lobbyists and anti-government ideologues.

For decades, Wisconsin has been at the epicenter of the movement to privatize education, pushed by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, a mega-wealthy conservative foundation and early backer of Milwaukee’s first-in-the-nation school voucher program. That program has expanded from fewer than 350 students when it launched in 1990 to 52,000 Wisconsin students using school vouchers today.

This year school privatization advocates scored a huge victory when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a longtime ally of public schools, agreed to a budget bargain that includes a historic bump in the amount of tax money per pupil Wisconsinites spend on private school vouchers. The rate went up from $8,399 to $9,874 for K-8 students and from $9,405 to $12,368 for high schoolers.

Not only is the amount of money taxpayers spend on private education increasing, in just a couple of years all enrollment caps come off the school choice program. We are on our way to becoming an all-voucher system. 

This makes no sense, especially since, over the last 33 years, the school voucher experiment has failed to produce better outcomes in reading and math than regular public schools.

So why are we undermining our public school system to continue the voucher expansion?

School Choice Wisconsin would have you believe that vouchers for private school are an improvement on public schools. In a recent report the group claims that publicly funded private schools are more “cost effective” when you compare their academic results to the cost of educating each student. (Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the same group is pushing to prevent the state from publicly disclosing how much taxpayer money we’re spending on publicly funded private schools.)

There’s something fishy going on with the scientific-sounding document School Choice Wisconsin is promoting. 

Using the word “report” to describe the document is “the kind of thing that drives school finance experts nuts,” Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University who has studied school vouchers for nearly two decades. told me on the phone after he read it.

“A serious version of this would give a range and talk about what would happen if you changed your assumptions,” Cowen said. For example, there are big differences in per-pupil spending across Wisconsin school districts, but the school choice lobby group came up with a “back of the envelope” ratio that doesn’t separate different areas with different costs. Nor does it make an apples-to-apples comparison between particular voucher schools and nearby public schools in the same district.

There’s a much bigger problem, though, says Cowen. 

“If you took the report at its word,” he says, “it’s possible to achieve exactly what they’re describing simply by exiting the children who are the most expensive to educate.”

That’s significant, because Wisconsin voucher schools have a long record of expelling and counseling out expensive-to-educate students. The ACLU of Wisconsin called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Wisconsin’s school voucher program for discriminating against children with disabilities in 2011, pointing to the very low number of special needs students in Milwaukee voucher schools. 

Last May, Wisconsin Watch reported on how voucher schools continue to discriminate against LGBTQ students and kids with disabilities by expelling them or counseling them to drop out.

“Forget cost-effective,” says Cowen. “they’re just able to reject kids that are more costly to them.”

Meanwhile, touting their dubious record of success in Wisconsin, pro-voucher groups are using Wisconsin kids to push forward vouchers nationally, Cowen says.

“The foot in the door created by the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1990 with 350 kids — that’s what created vouchers everywhere,” says Cowen. He notes a that the School Choice Wisconsin report credits a study by Corey DeAngelis, Ph.D. — a researcher to whom the report attributes a long list of obscure academic journal publications. What the report doesn’t note is that DeAngelis is a fellow at right-wing billionaire Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, a Michigan-based pro-voucher group that has dumped money into Wisconsin elections. His American Federation for Children bio adds his ties to a bunch of other right-wing foundations: executive director at Educational Freedom Institute, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, a senior fellow at Reason Foundation, and a board member at Liberty Justice Center — as well as a contributor to National Review and Fox News. 

The idea that public schools have failed and the free market is the solution has been the drum beat from these groups for decades.

The results have not been good.

“The roughly zero difference between voucher students and non voucher students in Wisconsin — that is about as good as it gets nationally,” Cowen says. As unimpressive as the school voucher experiment has been in Wisconsin, things are better here than in other states that followed Wisconsin’s lead, where Cowen describes the outcomes as “catastrophic.”

“We don’t often see programs that reduce student achievement the way vouchers have in Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and DC,” he says.

The learning loss caused by what Cowen calls “subprime” voucher schools in church basements and strip malls, where “academics is not their priority,” has had “roughly twice the effect of COVID,” in reducing academic performance, he says.

I took a tour of fly-by-night voucher schools in Milwaukee back in 2014. They were shockingly awful. They included schools in rundown storefronts where kids played in the parking lot, and an abandoned office building where a strict religious sect was teaching creationism in middle school science class. About 40% of voucher schools in Wisconsin that opened since 1990 have closed. Many of them were what Cowen calls the “subprimes.”

These days Wisconsin’s oversight of voucher schools is better than other states. The mainline Catholic and Lutheran schools that participate in the Wisconsin program have provided some stability for students, says Cowen

But the kids who attend those schools might have been there anyway without the voucher program taking money from public schools to help finance their education.

One of the lessons of Wisconsin, Cowen says, is that the main beneficiaries of expanded vouchers are private school families who never put their kids in public school in the first place. About three-quarters of new students who joined the school voucher program once it expanded statewide had never attended public school. 

Meanwhile, as taxpayers shell out more and more money to cover the cost of private school tuition, our public schools are increasingly strapped. 

None of this is driven by thoughtful research or sound educational policy. Instead, it’s the product of a movement of right-wing ideologues.

Members of the group Moms for Liberty laid out their support for school vouchers and their objections to public education recently in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “We Don’t Co-parent With the Government.”

The group takes particular umbrage at the idea of sending their kids to school with LGBTQ and transgender peers — the kids Wisconsin Watch reported are being shoved out of Wisconsin voucher schools.

The Moms for Liberty position goes back to the earliest days of school vouchers, says Cowen. He explains that vouchers first emerged in the South after the Brown v. Board of Education decision as a way for white parents to avoid sending their children to school with Black students. Now voucher schools like those Wisconsin Watch investigated are working to segregate out gay and trans students.

“At least it’s honest,” Cowen says. “What’s not honest is to say they have good results.

I like to think that a majority of Wisconsinites are like my own public school community — friendly, inclusive, and dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves an equal shot at getting an education and finding a place in society. If more people knew how much money and energy right-wing ideologues from out of state have put into destroying all that, and how destructive their efforts have been for kids, they would be outraged.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. 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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.