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Chris Rickert: Is latest voucher plan really an attack?
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Chris Rickert: Is latest voucher plan really an attack?

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The bomb Scott Walker dropped Monday wasn't as explosive as the one he dropped two years ago to largely end public-sector collective bargaining, but the response in Madison was no less predictable.

School Board member Ed Hughes' take on the governor's proposal to expand vouchers to the state's second-largest school district was probably typical of leaders in this liberal, pro-union city.

Hughes called Walker's proposal an "attack" and said vouchers "strike at the heart of public education."

But the question of vouchers shouldn't turn on the opinions of Madison's leaders or public school teachers. It should turn on whether the program is accountable to the people who pay for it.

I think of it this way: The government contracts for goods and services all the time. Contracting out our societal obligation to educate our children isn't all that different.

As with any other private organization that wins a publicly funded contract, private schools that take vouchers should provide the same kind of quality and access we expect of our other public services and infrastructure.

Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher School Choice Wisconsin, largely agrees.

And Department of Public Instruction spokesman Patrick Gasper said his agency "is in conversation with legislators, private schools and the governor's office to find a way to bring schools participating in the voucher program into an accountability system."

Voucher students in private schools already have to take the same state-mandated tests as public school students, and private schools must use admissions lotteries to prevent them cherry-picking the best voucher students.

Still needed are stronger rules that require private voucher schools to take students with special needs, make failing private schools ineligible for public dollars and prevent families who can afford private school tuition from getting vouchers.

These things are important not just because we want the best education for our children, but because taxpayers — most of whom don't even have school-age children — deserve a quality product at a good price.

I suspect an ongoing argument in the Wisconsin voucher debate will be over what qualifies as an "accountability" measure and what qualifies, in Bender's words, as simply more "bureaucracy."

Opponents to voucher expansion also will argue that public schools are more than just education products — that they serve a democratizing role by leveling the societal playing field, boosting our sense of civic duty and civic institutions, and helping to remind us of our responsibilities toward one another.

I tend to agree with that, but then, I like my kids' public school.

For parents of kids in schools that aren't meeting their needs, such arguments can sound a bit academic.

Of course, the most effective bulwarks against vouchers are quality public schools — the shortage of which, as a practical matter, can be seen in nothing more complicated than the number of parents who opt for taxpayer-funded private educations.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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