Back in 1990 when Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson proposed the first-ever in the nation voucher school program, exclusively for poor Milwaukee kids, the purpose seemed admirable.
Why should only the rich be able to send their children to private schools, avoiding the "failing" public schools in Wisconsin's largest city? asked the pro-voucher forces led by former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller. He argued that impoverished families in particular ought to be able to get financial help to improve their children's education.
Those opposed to the idea claimed it would be much better to put the extra money into the public school system rather than send children from poor families to private schools, many of which didn't have any better educational bona fides than the public ones.
Besides, many others claimed, the voucher system would serve as a foot in the door to eventually undermine the public school system — a system that had served the country since colonial days and was credited with representing the true melting pot among children from different cultures, races and incomes.
It turns out that those concerns weren't fantasies.
School choice, vouchers — take your pick — have been rapidly expanding since the days of Tommy Thompson's modest Milwaukee voucher plan. This has been especially so since Republican Scott Walker and a Legislature dominated by his fellow party members took over state government.
Quietly, Walker and Republican legislators have carefully tweaked state laws and education policies to expand school choice in Wisconsin to the point where the state is rapidly on its way to creating two school systems — both paid for by Wisconsin taxpayers.
Already in the less than eight years Walker's crowd has been in control, state spending for vouchers to private schools is approaching $2 billion. The voucher program has gone from serving 350 impoverished Milwaukee families in 1990 to more than 26,000 around the state today, much of the increase because the Legislature approved expanding the once Milwaukee-only program to Racine and then statewide. This past session, the Legislature OK'd including special needs children in the program, costing about $14,000 per voucher.
Further, the eligibility requirements were changed from a family having to be below 150 percent of the national poverty level to below 220 percent, opening the program to families with higher incomes and, ironically, attracting those who had already been paying for private schools themselves to now send their children to them on the taxpayers' dime.
Another tweak engineered by Walker, the self-acclaimed "education governor," was to change the method of funding. While Thompson's original program had set up a separate fund so voucher schools wouldn't siphon money from public schools, the new system dictates that school aids follow the student to where he or she enrolls, whether public or private.
This is a particularly steep price to pay for smaller Wisconsin districts. A school with less than 1,000 students, for instance, would lose seven or eight thousand dollars for each child who opts to transfer, making it doubly difficult to make budgets balance.
It's just one more reason why so many smaller schools in Wisconsin have had to resort to referendums to avoid disaster.
No one is quite sure what the motives of the voucher advocates really are.
What is known is that the whole movement — now in several more states in addition to Wisconsin — is being bankrolled by deep-pocketed special interests. The Koch brothers have been behind a national push and have long been in cahoots with billionaire Betsy DeVos, the private school zealot who doubles as Trump's secretary of education.
Here in Wisconsin the ultra-conservative Bradley Foundation has bankrolled bright young conservative lawyers to write columns, research papers and various other propaganda to trumpet vouchers' success. Trouble is, the Walker cabal changed a requirement that private schools adhere to the same standards and tests as public schools. Now, it's virtually impossible to accurately compare the two.
The Bradley-financed mouthpieces insist voucher schools are doing better while the anti-voucher people say there's been absolutely no difference between the systems' outcomes.
Could it be that the ultimate goal is to do away with public schools and replace them with a private, for-profit educational model, subsidized by American taxpayers?
It's just one more reason to look very carefully at who you vote for next Tuesday. Scott Walker has led the march for vouchers. Tony Evers hasn't.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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