School choice is a growing movement in Wisconsin as parents increasingly take advantage of opportunities offered by the raft of recently passed laws that provide better education options for kids. In Oshkosh alone, 180 students left their local public school to either enroll in a school outside their district or take classes through one of the two virtual public charters operating in the state.
In total, more than 44,000 Wisconsin students took advantage of the state's choice program that allows students to enroll in a public school outside their assigned home district. To school choice advocates, the numbers prove that parents have long been starved for options when it comes to choosing the best educational setting for their kids — and they're embracing the opportunity to choose a school that fits best for their child.
But public school teachers and administrators are doing all they can to stop the choice movement from going in that direction. They say it crosses a line by mixing public dollars with private and for-profit education.
A measure in the proposed state biennial budget to expand private school vouchers, which currently only exist in the Milwaukee and Racine areas, has become one of the most controversial pieces of the bill. It would allow up to 500 lower-income students from anywhere in the state to receive tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition.
The concerns of anti-choice advocates are not new. Many fear and argue that public schools will degrade in quality if their funding is allowed to be siphoned off to other institutions via vouchers and tax breaks. In Oshkosh, members of the school board are already sounding an alarm by approving an emergency resolution in opposition to the voucher program expansion.
Yet stopping school choice in its track – especially in Wisconsin – would be like trying to get the horse back in the barn. Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, explained that the state has been moving in this direction since it approved open enrollment policies for its public schools in 1998.
The number of families taking advantage of the program has been steadily rising every year since then.
Voucher opponents say the growing use of open enrollment doesn't necessarily mean there's demand for public funding to attend private schools.
State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he has heard from more constituents opposed to private school vouchers than from people who support them.
"There are talks going on all over the country and world on the future of public education regarding innovation, reform, the role of technology, teacher accountability. But, no one is talking about vouchers," he said. "What Wisconsin is doing is an ideological experiment not grounded in research or evidence. It's grounded in politics."