The Trump Administration is setting their sights on a tax-reform package which could include a new national school choice tax credit program likely favored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Congressional Republicans.
This is a worthwhile pursuit but not an easy one.
The Trump Administration should learn the lessons of Milwaukee, home to the country’s oldest and one of its largest school voucher programs. Even though Milwaukee shows that school choice can work, any national voucher plan will have plenty of opponents who will work to undermine it, putting their interests ahead of children.
Starting in 1990, a bipartisan coalition created the nation’s first private school choice program in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program currently gives families at 300 percent of the poverty line or below access to a taxpayer funded voucher of $7,646 (average) to attend a private school of their choice. The program is incredibly popular, serving over 27,000 low-income children at 121 private schools in Milwaukee.
Not every private voucher school is high-performing.
But new research by our colleague, Dr. Will Flanders, adds to the growing number of studies showing how children in the Milwaukee choice program are better off than their peers in Milwaukee Public Schools — which receives 30 percent more per student than the voucher (more if you include federal dollars) to produce a dismal graduation rate of 58 percent and 23,000 children attending 41 failing schools.
When controlled race and socioeconomic status, students in the voucher program were about 5 percent more likely to be proficient in English and 4 percent more likely to be proficient in math than their peers at Milwaukee Public Schools, according to Flanders research.
In fact, private choice schools even outperformed the most prestigious, selective Milwaukee Public Schools schools.
These outcomes were driven primarily by Catholic and Lutheran schools, reflecting the importance of experienced values-based education and highlighting the importance of attracting high quality schools.
The study largely echoes some of the findings of the state-mandated School Choice Demonstration Project, which also found that students in the the city’s parent choice program had improved scores in reading and comparable outcomes in math.
Beyond test scores, recent academic studies have also shown that students in the Milwaukee voucher program for four or more years are less likely to be convicted of crime and more likely to graduate from high school.
This results in nearly half a billion dollars in additional economic revenue for the city and state, thanks to, among other things, a reduced use of the criminal justice system and government-funded public assistance.
Unfortunately these successes are not embraced by everyone. Public employee unions, progressive activists, and the Democratic political establishment who benefit from the status quo are committed to kneecapping school choice in Milwaukee by making life difficult for private schools in the choice program.
This starts with City officials hoarding empty school buildings rather than sell them to private schools. In Milwaukee, 39 school buildings sit empty or operate at less than 50 percent capacity, costing taxpayers more than $10.2 million to maintain. Many of these empty buildings have had interest from high-performing private schools.
St. Marcus Lutheran School, one of the City’s best schools, offered to purchase two empty buildings to expand its campus.
But Milwaukee Public Schools officials and city politicians refused. School Board Member Larry Miller blasted the school for being a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, calling their teachings “imperious sectarianism and ignorance.”
For his part, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett would only allow St. Marcus to purchase a building if the school paid a “school choice tax” of $1.3 million in addition to the appraised value of the building.
Another battle is busing. State law requires the public school district to transport children to their private school but Milwaukee Public Schools consistently seeks to evade this requirement.
Last month we sued Milwaukee Public Schools in federal court for refusing to bus 70 girls who attend St. Joan Antida High School, an all-girls high school with 87 percent of students on free or reduced lunch and more than 90 percent of graduates going on to pursue a two or four year degree.
Based on our experience in Milwaukee, successful choice schools will be accused by national teachers’ unions of “discrimination” and “cherry-picking” their students. But state law in Wisconsin forbids the screening of applicants.
When the Obama Administration’s Justice Department launched a 4 year investigation into accusations of discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, it found nothing and closed its probe with no evidence of wrongdoing.
The lessons from Milwaukee are clear.
School choice can work for children, but adults who are invested in keeping the status quo will resist it tooth and nail. Whether or not there should be a national school choice tax credit program, the Trump administration is doing the right thing in promoting parental choice.
But they will need to persist and come prepared to fight.
Rick Esenberg is president and general counsel at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. CJ Szafir is the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s vice president for policy and deputy counsel.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.