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The Voucher Death Spiral in WI

November 30, 2014

An article in today’s Racine Journal Times describes the death spiral occurring in WI schools as a result of their “open enrollment” plan, which is a voucher plan wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of “parent choice”. The article sympathetically described the plight of “Hundreds Drive the Distance to Leave Local Public Schools”. Why are they leaving their nearby schools in Racine to attend another public school in a nearby suburb?

Those families choose to make the drive for a variety of reasons, among them: safety, a better education and a smaller community school.

And to help the reader understand what is meant by these terms, the article offers some quotes:

  • One parent “…heard from other family members about a lot of fights at Racine Unified schools and other situations involving “inner-city kids”
  • Another parent said, “I feel like out here parents raise their children the same way”
  • A third parent did some on-line research and “found western Racine County schools had better math and reading scores than Unified and… decided to open enroll her son out of (her nearby local school).

I read the quotes from the public schools receiving these out-of-district students and know that they are welcomed by the business office and local school board. The receiving districts can decide how may students they will accept at each grade level and they can make that determination annually. Thus, they can accept students without adding to their operating costs (the parents must provide their own transportation) and they will receive the additional state funds each student brings with them. But the voucher gravy train might not last for long! Why?

This year, after the recent expansion of vouchers which allows families to go to private schools with the help of state money, the (a desirable public high school) had fewer freshmen open enrollment applications and had spaces for all of those freshmen who applied, he said, although the district had to turn some sophomores away.

So here’s the death spiral that vouchers put in place:

  • All schools, public and private, open their doors to students who reside in any community
  • State revenues follow the child to the schools with better math and reading scores, expanding the revenue side of the budget for those districts. These “receiving” districts can then expand programs for children in the school without affecting local taxes, lower the local taxes, or do both.
  • State revenues leave the districts serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way”.  This diminishes the revenue side of the budget which means the districts must cut programs, increase local taxes, or both.
  • When the costs of public schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” are too high the public schools are replaced by for-profit charters whose operating costs are lower and who can provide an equally sound education based on test scores.
  • As parents migrate out of public schools to attend religiously affiliated schools, private for-profit schools, non-public charter schools, or on-line schools, taxes flow away from the public school districts and all districts losing children to these “choices” face the same fate as the public schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way”
  • As more and more parents enroll their children in schools outside the district where they reside, fewer and fewer voters in the district have a stake in providing adequate funding levels for those schools.

Once this death spiral begins, it is a daunting political challenge to stop it. Why?

  • The voters in districts with better math and reading scores are experiencing either better programs or lower taxes. Why would they vote for a change? 
  • The voters whose children are leaving schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” are satisfied with their child’s education even though they are required to provide transportation for them. Why would they vote for a change? 
  • Taxpayers who don’t have children in schools and reside districts with better math and reading scores are experiencing lower taxes and, in all likelihood, stable or increasing property values. Why would they vote for a change? 
  • When you add these voters together, they constitute a clear majority. So why would a politician advocate a change?

Who loses in this shift of resources? The schools serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” and the teachers who work in those schools… and while those schools might constitute a majority of students in WI their parents do not constitute a majority of voters… and if the teachers serving “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way” protest, politicians like Scott Walker can cast them as “greedy union members” who are only looking out for themselves. 

But the real losers in this cannot cast votes: the REAL losers are the “inner city” children or children of “parents who don’t raise their children the same way”…. and the only way to end the voucher death spiral is to stop it before it goes viral

 

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