Private school voucher expansion: A growing taxpayer-funded entitlement

by John Forester

Many observers have called Gov.Scott Walker’s proposal to expand private school vouchers bad education policy.  I agree. Today I would like to address voucher expansion from the perspective of fiscal policy.

If voucher advocates are successful in expanding private school vouchers in this budget, vouchers will eventually become one of the largest taxpayer-funded entitlements in Wisconsin.

I realize this is a strong statement. I also understand that voucher proponents argue the Governor’s proposal increases voucher eligibility to just nine new school districts in 2013-14. If you let the nose of the camel inside the tent, however, it won’t be long before the rest of the camel is inside the tent as well.

The ultimate objective of private school voucher advocates is a statewide system of private school vouchers for all Wisconsin school children. Voucher advocates, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have repeatedly voiced their support for statewide vouchers. This objective became crystal-clear in a recent news interview when School Choice Wisconsin Vice-President Terry Brown identified the goal of voucher proponents as “a voucher in every backpack.”

So, how much could this entitlement end up costing Wisconsin taxpayers?

Let’s just focus on those students currently enrolled in private school, because of course, lawmakers wouldn’t deny those children access to a voucher simply because they are already enrolled in private school.  It wouldn’t be fair and it probably wouldn’t be legal. Let’s also remove the question of income eligibility because Governor Walker has already expressed his desire to remove the income eligibility requirements for vouchers.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, we have 97,488 students currently enrolled in private schools in Wisconsin but not receiving a taxpayer-funded voucher. If we multiply that number by the current voucher payment of $6,442, we get just over $628 million.

But, the governor’s proposal would increase the voucher payment to $7,050 for K-8 students and $7,856 for high school students.  Just for perspective, if we multiply the private school enrollment figure by $7,050, we get over $687 million.  And, if we multiply the enrollment figure by $7,856, we get almost $766 million. Clearly, voucher expansion will be a large and growing fiscal commitment for Wisconsin taxpayers.

So, what would voucher proponents have lawmakers do to fund this growing entitlement? Raise taxes?

In the 1990s, Gov. Tommy Thompson was asked about his lack of support for statewide voucher expansion. He answered, “We can’t afford two systems of education.”  His words ring just as true today as they did then.

We simply can’t afford two systems of education in Wisconsin.

After spending nine years on the staff of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, I have to say I am perplexed that so many fiscal conservatives would support growing entitlement spending of this magnitude.

Voucher expansion is not only bad education policy. It is bad fiscal policy as well.

John Forester is the director of government relations for the School Administrators Alliance (SAA).

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