Public Issues Series: Public Schools and Privatization

Source: Wausau Daily Herald, Keith Uhlig

The Wisconsin Institute on Public Policy and Service next week will wade into the roiling waters swirling around vouchers and school choice, and it’s inviting others along for the ride.

The Institute is sponsoring a Thursday presentation by Julie Mead, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Mead’s expertise lies in the legal aspects of education, and she’s been researching for 20 years the issues related to special education and various forms of school choice.

Mead’s presentation, beginning at 6:30 p.m., will be titled Public Schools and Privatization: What’s At Stake? The event comes a few weeks after Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed eliminating the cap on the statewide Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, which provides parents vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools.

Under the proposal, the money to pay for the vouchers would come out of state aid given to the public schools that students leave. The move needs to be approved by the state Legislature and it’s been praised by conservatives and advocacy groups such as School Choice Wisconsin, which is working to expand school options for parents. Some Republican legislators, Democrats and public school advocates have soundly criticized Walker’s proposal.

Mead seeks to find ground between the two extremes.

“My goal is generally to share what I’ve learned so people can think about it,” Mead said. “I do think public education is supremely important. But I don’t think we’ve really had a conversation about (school choice and vouchers). What are we potentially giving up as we go to ever-increasing privatization? Can we support two systems?”

Advocates for school choice argue that giving parents more options for children — and injecting a dose of competitiveness into the system — will encourage all schools to get better. Walker’s proposal empowers parents, argues School Choice Wisconsin.

People need to understand the ramifications for further subsidizing private school choice, Mead said. The Wisconsin Constitution requires that the state provide a uniform public education for all. There are five dimensions that make public education “public,” Mead said: a public purpose generally agreed upon by society; funding; access; accountability to community; and public curriculum, also generally agreed upon by society.

Mead argues that the voucher system, which would transfer money from public schools to private schools, dilutes the public dimensions of public education to varying degrees.

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said the voucher program sets up an alternative system in addition to the public system required by the state’s constitution. Giving parents choices, Bender argues, actually builds more accountability into the system. If parents are displeased with a private school, they can pull children out.

“A private school has to be much more responsive to the needs of parents,” he said.

Mead said people also need to understand that choice does have consequences.

“I think we have to take a step back and not presume that choice is in fact going to lead us to better systems and better results,” she said. “Whatever your views, it’s undeniable that we’re changing what was and making something new. Whether or not that’s good or bad, we need to talk about whether this is something we want to do. We should be engaged in that conversation to make sure that we are building policy that we collectively support.”