This year over 41,000 students took advantage of Wisconsin’s open-enrollment policy to transfer to public schools outside their home district, according to the Department of Public Instruction. An additional 37,000 students attend over 200 charter schools. Over 25,000 students participate in the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs, while 137,000 students attend over 900 private schools. Clearly demand for choice by parents and students is strong.
Yet choice is not without its critics. Some argue school choice is an effort to “privatize” public education. But Wisconsin is constitutionally required to provide public schools. And certainly families who are happy with traditional public schools (of which there are many) are not going to abandon them.
This fear of “privatization” begs the question: Is the goal of public education to achieve an educated public, or the creation of a certain type of school? Focusing on form over function is a mistake.
Others believe choice starves public schools of critical funding. But as the number of families exercising choice over the past few decades has grown dramatically, so have public school expenditures. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, from 1999 to 2011 real inflation-adjusted per pupil public school expenditures in Wisconsin have increased almost 16 percent, from $10,912 to $12,653.
In addition, a University of Arkansas study on the Milwaukee voucher program estimates it saved Wisconsin taxpayers nearly $52 million in 2011 due to the voucher amount being far less than what Milwaukee public schools typically spend per student. Arguing that choice has hurt public school finances is not supported by the evidence.
Another frequent criticism of school choice is the objection to taxpayer money being spent on private educational institutions. But our government spends taxpayer dollars on products and services from private companies all the time. Why is it OK to pay private contractors to build our schools, private publishing companies to provide the books and private transport companies to bus our children, but when the teacher or administrator is not a government employee we cry foul?
Our focus should be on educating children and preparing them for life, through whatever school form that might take.