With voucher advocates trumpeting "National School Choice Week," it is a fitting time to examine the proposed expansion of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. Some politicians are intent on slowly doing away with our public education system in favor of privatized education paid for with taxpayer money.
Voucher money largely flows to religious schools. In the newly expanded "choice" of schools in Racine, 10 out of the 11 schools are parochial schools. Based on a review of Department of Public Instruction data on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more than 21,000 of nearly 25,000 enrolled students at the beginning of this school year attended readily identifiable religious schools.
This amounts to more than $133 million in taxpayer money going to religious institutions in Milwaukee this school year alone.
Funding private and religious schools through vouchers is an end run around our constitutionally created public education system. The Wisconsin Constitution requires the Legislature to "provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge … and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein."
Proposals to continue to chip away at public education and expand vouchers by increasing the geographic area, income limits and funding are contrary to our long-valued public education system.
Schools do not exist just to benefit parents. They serve to educate the next generation to create an educated citizenry and to ensure the vitality of the state. This is a public good supported by all, including those who do not have school-aged children. This social value is recognized by our constitutionally created public schools and our compulsory education laws.
While parents pick the school of their choice in using vouchers, taxpayers pay the bills. And taxpayers have no means of holding voucher schools accountable. Low performing voucher schools, which have little state oversight, can do as they please. Voucher schools are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents.
Some of the Milwaukee choice schools are not holding up their duty to provide a comprehensive education. Take, for instance, the Clara Mohammed School. According to its IRS filings, the school's purpose is to engage in "a Qur'an-guided journey toward active global citizenship." It is funded almost exclusively through vouchers. In 2011, only 0.8 percent of its students (1 out of 123) tested proficient in math and 5.7 percent tested proficient in reading on state exams.
Other Milwaukee choice schools are using unscientific and outdated curriculum from fundamentalist Christian textbook publishers such as A Beka Books. Carter's Christian Academy in Milwaukee describes the A Beka materials, covering normal school subjects, as being "presented from God's point of view." Of the 69 Carter's Christian students tested in 2011, none tested proficient in reading by state standards and only three tested proficient in math. IRS records show the principal got $109,000 in 2011 compensation.
Both the Clara Mohammed School and Carter's Christian Academy have increased enrollment this year. While they enroll a small number of students, they are a symptom of a larger problem. The schools can take public money and teach what they want. The schools do not have to have licensed teachers or even safe outdoor space for students to play. Parents will continue to send their students to these schools, whether for religious reasons or because they mistakenly believe school leaders are up to the task of providing a sound education.
The voucher school program needs elimination rather than expansion.
Patrick Elliott is a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison.