Some Republicans Oppose Wisconsin Voucher Program Expansion

Republicans aren’t typically members of the opposition in school choice debates, but in addition to the usual critics like teachers unions and some Democratic lawmakers, there is a growing group of GOP legislators who also oppose expansion of the state-funded scholarships that allow students to attend whatever school they choose.

Some examples of such opponents can be found in Wisconsin, where some kind of voucher program has been in place for more than 2 decades. At the moment only students from Milwaukee and Racine are qualified to participate, but in the draft for his next state budget Governor Scott Walker has inserted the language that would expand the program to nine further school districts while raising the funding for the program by 9%.

Up to 500 additional children from families making 300% of the poverty level in the affected areas would be able to take part in the first year and up to 1,000 in the second. More than 40,000 students who are not currently eligible would be made so under Walker’s proposal.

Yet Senate President Mike Ellis – who called the schools in one of the newly eligible districts a “sewer” just last year – said that he will be blocking Walker’s plans because they failed to take into account the voices of 8 of the 10 Republicans who have gone on record opposing the voucher expansion.

Their concern? That the plan could be the first phase of a state-wide voucher program which they strongly oppose.

But what would be wrong with that? According to the School Choice Demonstration Project, 94% of students who have received vouchers in Milwaukee graduate from high school, compared to 75% from the Milwaukee public schools. They’re also more likely to go to college.

While Wisconsin schools score better than most, in 2010 the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that Wisconsin’s black fourth grade students had the worst reading scores in the country. By eighth grade, black students did worse on English tests than students for whom English was a second language.

Opposition to the expansion from the teachers unions is to be expected. According to the Wall Street Journal editorial, they’re likely to greet Walker’s proposal with the usual litany of complaints including ones about strip-mining public school budgets in order to line the pockets of private business interests. Such accusations don’t typically come from Republican lawmakers, yet in the case of Wisconsin, they seem to be echoing union complaints word for word.

One reason school reform has been so politically difficult is that too many suburban parents think the problem is confined to inner-city schools when their own schools fail to educate thousands. Republicans too often play to this conceit, especially when it means they can win union support. Mr. Walker has put the GOP on the right side of the reform debate, and his party should get behind him.