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Critics demonize choice program

When does a pebble weigh more than a boulder? Answer – when someone thinks they can benefit from saying so.  There are two parental choice programs in Wisconsin that are funded by the same mechanism.  One of them is very large, with 50,000 students participating, and involves hundreds of millions of dollars.  The other is rather small, only 2,500 students, and costs a fraction of that total. The state uses the same method to fund both programs, but they are very different in scale.

Public school open enrollment, the large program, allows students to transfer between neighboring public school districts.  The small program, the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP), allows low-income parents to place their children in participating private schools with a voucher.

Public school open enrollment has been around for decades and largely flies under the radar. The WPCP, conversely, regularly receives strong opposition from some members of the public school establishment.  In fact, their fixation with the WPCP, and vouchers in general, is borderline obsessive.

This explains the effort to paint the WPCP as the culprit for increased property taxes across the state.  Clearly planned from the statewide organizations that fuel the public relations campaigns of local school districts, these new talking points are meant to create a negative perception of the WPCP and those that voted to expand the program.

The complexity of education funding actually helps those that are trying to drive a narrative based on that funding.  In Green Bay, for example, open enrollment has the state withholding seven times as much funding as the WPCP. But local officials blame the WPCP. 

In Oostburg, open enrollment has an impact on funding that is four times greater than the WPCP.  But again, fingers are pointed at the WPCP to drive a narrative, not to relay objective information to residents.  One aspect of education funding is particularly helpful for those driving this narrative – the lag of one year in state aid.

Imagine a family moves from Iowa to Wisconsin in August.  Their daughter, Becky, is going into her senior year.  She enrolls in a public high school.  While the local district can count her for the purposes of property taxes, the state policy is to use last year’s enrollment count for sending out state aid.  This means for her senior year, the state does not send any money to the school district on her behalf.

However, the next year, after Becky graduates, state funding arrives.  The district cannot count the student for property taxes, but they do receive a payment for the state.  So, over time, the funding balances out.

This same process is at work with open enrollment and the WPCP.  There are students entering the program whose funding will lag by one year.  Again, over time, the enrollment counts even out.  But this year, the statewide narrative aims to attack the WPCP so the full picture is conveniently withheld.

School districts across the state are impacted in different ways by open enrollment, the WPCP and overall education funding; there is no uniformity in the short term or over time.  However, both open enrollment and the WPCP funding mechanism require public districts to transfer state aid equal to 65-75% of their revenue limit to the receiving school.  In both instances, the district can choose to levy the full limit and keep the difference.

So when a local district puts out information on property taxes blaming the WPCP or vouchers, make sure you check to see if this pebble weighs more than the boulder.  You may just be getting the information that they want you to see, created as part of a statewide messaging campaign aimed at demonizing the voucher program and limiting parental choice. 

*Jim Bender is president of School Choice Wisconsin, this opinion peice was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on October 29, 2015 


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