School voucher program has outlived its promises and potential

The latest disclosure of what looks like a rip-off of Wisconsin taxpayer money used for the school voucher system has got to be another nail in the coffin of the entire system.

I was around when State Rep. Polly Williams was the face of the fight for voucher schools. She was being backed by consultants George and Susan Mitchell, and Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.

I was never a vicious opponent of the voucher program. I believed that there was room for lots of schools, a system of schools, public, private, charter, religious and even experimental schools.

There is no claim to expertise that I make, but I am more than a little familiar with ways to improve urban public schools. I’ve worked at executive levels in MPS and the largest school system in the country, New York City. I have consulted on reform efforts in Boston, Newark, Virginia Beach and Charlotte.

In 1990 the voucher program began in Milwaukee and for the first time in the country vouchers went to private schools to enroll students from low-income families.

Now comes the case of Taron Monroe and her husband, Rodney. They ran a voucher school called LifeSkills Academy. The school closed suddenly in mid-December without any notice, forcing the few students to scramble for a new school. The Monroes have surfaced in Florida where they are apparently either starting or have started another school, getting public funds.

The Monroes and their school signed up for the voucher program in the 2008-09 school year. Over years they have collected more than $2 million to educate children.

When the debate over voucher school was raging, the main argument of supporters was that the voucher schools would provide competition for the public schools, thereby motivating them to be better.

What really happened was that so much money was siphoned from public schools that any improvement became almost impossible. Schools have been forced to cut teachers, specialists, guidance counselors and any number of programs that helped educate students.

The Monroe case is just another in a line of examples of the uncertainty and instability of the voucher program.

The voucher program has brought us several things. One is not any appreciable difference between public and private school students. The suggestion that private schools do a better job has been proven wrong.

And we have also gotten the Monroe fiasco and other cases of taxpayer money seeming to disappear with no results or no idea where it’s gone or what it’s done.

What I think ought to happen is that we should elect a Democratic governor whose first order of business would be to dismantle the voucher program. Let’s get all that money back into the public schools to give them a better chance to educate children.

The voucher program costs somewhere around $200 million every school year. Think about that figure: $200 million. That’s money that would go back to public schools, and just imagine what could be done with that.

Two adults in every early education classroom. A return of art and music programs. Guidance counselors in every school to help students chart their course.

The money would have a dramatic impact and, I’m convinced, would improve the education for thousands and thousands of students.

Somebody with some sense needs to say, “Okay, we tried it, and what we hoped would happen didn’t. So, let’s stop it.”

There is no hope that Scott Walker and his Republican buddies in the legislature are even going to entertain this idea. So we are doomed to keep wasting this money while public schools become ever more desperate for resources.

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