US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence visited the State Capitol today to signal their support for school voucher programs.
Secretary DeVos, a long-time advocate for school voucher systems, spoke to a gathered crowd of supporters an d students wearing yellow sashes in support of National School Choice Week. She characterized private schools as freedom.
“Education shouldn’t be determined by luck or by address or by family income,” said DeVos. “And education shouldn’t be an old-school one-size-fits-all experience. Every student is unique. And everyone learns differently. Each one having the freedom to do so is why I took this job. And we have a bold plan: An American education freedom agenda. The freedom to learn, to grow, to advance. The freedom to find your fit.”
School vouchers are subsidies given to parents who don’t want to send their children to the public school that serves their zip code.
Wisconsin is home to the nation’s first voucher system, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was started in 1990 as a way for primarily black students to go to better schools. Today, more than 43,000 children attend private schools in Wisconsin through voucher programs.
Vice President Pence is also a strong supporter of school choice. When he was Governor of Indiana, he expanded the state’s voucher program. , Today, he thanked the architect of school choice in Wisconsin: Former Governor Tommy Thompson.
“Thirty years ago, governor Tommy Thompson made history when he created the first school choice program in America,” said Pence. “Governor Scott Walker built on that progress when he expanded the program statewide and today, thanks to their leadership and the support of the people of Wisconsin, more than 40,000 students are able to attend the school of their choice. Governor Tommy Thompson, thank you again.”
For some, school choice is an opportunity for a better education. And for some, like Arie, of Madison, who attended the School Choice rally today, school vouchers are about religion.
“We had a Jewish school in Madison, elementary school,” said Arie. “Sadly it died. Had it been a charter school and supported that way, the school would have continued and we’d have a Jewish school in Madison. Sadly, we don’t have one. And it’s important that Jewish students have a Jewish education and go to a Jewish school. I went to high school in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I was the only person wearing a Yamaka in my high school. I went through really hard times being Jewish in my high school.”
But not everyone is happy with school vouchers. Detractors say the system drains money and resources from public education, which decreases the quality of public schools. For Mark Kelderman of Brownsville, who protested at today’s rally, school choice means a less fair system.
“We don’t think it’s appropriate to be taking money from the public school to give a voucher to someone in a setting that may not be able to have enough students to justify a school,” said Kelderman. “And oftentimes those students are bussed by public schools to locations that are large enough to have a sports program or have disability services to accommodate special needs students. And we don’t think there’s much equity in the system. And we think that each voucher student is a direct threat to a public school student.”
Since the Parental Choice Program began in Milwaukee County, the school board has been dominated by candidates who support voucher programs. That changed last year, when candidates endorsed by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association-a union-took control of the board.
Governor Evers who is also the former head of state schools, has proposed limiting the number of people who could enroll in the voucher program. At today’s celebration of school choice, Governor Evers was pointedly absent.
Today, Senator Chris Larson and Representative Jonathan Brostoff, both Democrats representing Milwaukee, unveiled a bill that would lower class sizes and phase out the voucher experiment in their home city. Instead, they said, Wisconsin should reinvest in its public schools.
“Instead of lining the pockets of the big donors and their education privatization lobbyists and other swindlers we need to reinvest in Wisconsin, hire more teachers, lower classroom sizes, and make sure that every student is getting the attention they deserve,” said Brostoff.
However, it’s unlikely that the bill will get support from the Republican legislature. Today, Vice President Pence praised the state GOP, saying that every one of Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers supports the voucher program.
“Parents, teachers and advocates in this room have at times faced fierce resistance from special interests and the politicians they support,” said Pence. “In fact, I learned on the way here that there’s a bill being introduced in the Wisconsin legislature that would actually phase out school choice in this state. I know the governor could be here with us today, so let’s make sure he hears us: We’re not going to let that happen!”
The bill is now circulating the Capitol.