Although it seems only a matter of time before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) realizes his master plan to expand vouchers, some “school choice” opponents are making a last-ditch effort to stop Walker’s scheme.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that state Democrats are trying to convince a handful of moderate Republican senators to switch their votes on the 2014-2015 budget proposal because they want to stop the proposed expansion of the state’s voucher program. (Republicans have a narrow 18-15 margin in the state Senate, so just two would need to vote with Democrats to derail the legislation).
The budget bill being considered this week contains a provision that would expand the current private school voucher program statewide (it’s presently only available in Milwaukee and eastern Racine County). If approved, in the first year a maximum of 500 kids with household incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($43,567) could receive taxpayer money to attend private institutions, including religious schools. The next year, up to 1,000 could qualify for the program.
But Democrats say they don’t think the cap will remain in place for very long.
“This is a Wisconsin Legislature that is poised to walk off a cliff,” said Rep. Fred Clark (D-Sauk City), according to the Journal Sentinel. “We are going to do our best in the next three days to prevent that from occurring.”
Lest you think this is just a matter of political posturing, it is not – advocates for public education are pretty darn upset about the voucher scheme, too.
Appleton School Superintendent Lee Allinger expressed concern about handing over public money to private schools because those schools don’t have the same accountability standards.
“There’s this idea of a double standard,” Allinger said, according to the Appleton Post Crescent. “If your school has the majority of its funding coming through vouchers … should you not be held to the same level of accountability [as public schools]?”
State Superintendent Tony Evers also criticized the program, saying at a news conference that the budget “is a bad budget for kids. It’s bad for public schools. It’s bad for Wisconsin.”
It’s also going to create constitutional conflicts, as noted by Wisconsin resident Clete Delvaux. Delvaux, of De Pere, Wisc., says he is a Catholic who went to Catholic schools, but his parents didn’t expect the public to pay their son’s tuition. He also understands that government can’t pick and choose which faiths it funds through vouchers.
In a stellar letter to the Green Bay Press Gazette, he asked: “Should the taxpayers — many of whom espouse no religion at all — be forced to contribute their public taxes to the teaching of a particular religious doctrine in a private school?
“Remember Christianity is not the only religion that would get these tax monies to support their doctrines. Will the taxpayer also pay to support the doctrines taught in Muslim schools (which may teach the dreaded Sharia Law), Mormon schools, Branch Davidian schools, etc.? Who will decide which group can qualify as a ‘school’?”
Concluded Delvaux: “Separation between church (religions) and state is a well-established American principle. We would do well to keep it that way.”
Delvaux is exactly right, and an example from across the pond illustrates that.
On a recent visit to Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, President Obama visited one of the few religiously integrated schools there. The Enniskillen School is known as an “Integrated Primary School,” and its 245 students are a mix of Catholics, Protestants and others, Agence France-Presse (AFP) said.
Just six percent of Northern Ireland’s schools are religiously mixed, which AFP said is a source of ire for critics who think such a setup perpetuates hatred in a region that saw decades of religiously motivated violence.
“If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs – if we can't see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division,” Obama said, according to AFP.
The United States has avoided sectarian strife because our children are not segregated along religious lines in religious schools. But if vouchers make private schools a more attractive option for parents, more and more children may attend schools that teach students only one faith. The result will surely be intolerance.
In the end, the move toward vouchers is a move toward divisiveness. If only lawmakers in Wisconsin and other states could understand that, perhaps there would be no more voucher schemes.