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Editorial cartoon 9/4/13

The recent news release from the State Department of Public Instruction revealing that 67 percent of the applicants to the Walker administration's expanded school voucher program are already attending private schools elicited cries of "scam" from many quarters.

And well it should have.

That two-thirds of the voucher applicants had their children already enrolled in private schools lays waste the argument by Wisconsin legislative Republicans and the governor that vouchers are needed so poor families can rescue their children from poorly performing public schools.

That has always been a spurious argument, even back in the days when Gov. Tommy Thompson shepherded the nation's first school choice program through the Legislature for low-income Milwaukee families. It was sold based on the argument that poor families, said to be ill-served by Milwaukee's public school system, ought to be able to send their children to private schools just as do rich people. So, in order to do that with taxpayers' money, vouchers were devised to technically make tuition grants to the families, which in turn would use them to pay the private schools. 

Not only was it a scheme to avoid the messy constitutional issue of sending tax dollars to private schools often run by churches, but in reality it was a foot in the door for a well-funded extreme conservative movement to weaken public education.  

The Koch brothers, the Heritage Foundation, the DeVos (Amway) family, the Walton family (Walmart) and right-wing front groups have been behind the push for so-called choice schools. Now that several states, like Wisconsin, are controlled by the new far-right Republican Party, they are pushing vouchers as never before.  And the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), of course, has provided the model legislation.

The choice movement not only views public schools as monopolies run by teachers unions, but a sizable faction disagrees with what's taught — evolution, the history of labor, sex education and other topics abhorred by the far right. And since they can't often get their way with publicly elected school boards, bolstering private schools where they can set the agenda with taxpayers' money is a dream come true.

But, as former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover, a fierce opponent of voucher schools, said at the time the state's first voucher program was approved:

"Our public schools are base metal to America. We will be moated as a society if we allow this to happen; we will fear each other and build moats, gathering around religion, race, wealth, influence. What kind of doctrine will be taught in those schools?

"If you look closely, you can see the social fabric of America beginning to unravel. Private school vouchers permit us to fear one another, to surround ourselves with those who look and think like we do, and — in so doing — to abandon our commitment to pluralism and diversity."

Up until this year, Wisconsin's voucher program was limited to the Milwaukee and Racine school districts. The Walker Republicans expanded it throughout the state, although with limits initially. And again the argument was that poor families needed to escape failing schools.

Now it turns out that most of the money will go to families who had already made the decision to put their kids in private schools. To them, the voucher expansion is a financial windfall that was supposedly going to families who, we were told, were trapped in the public school system.

The whole voucher agenda has been exposed for the scam it really is.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com

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