Scaring taxpayers about school choice income limits is arrogant
By PATRICK MCILHERAN | March 3, 2022
The warden of Wisconsin’s public-school status quo, the Department of Public Instruction, was wrong, when it recently made an absurd estimate about the cost of opening up school choice to all families without regard to income.
More than that, DPI betrayed an arrogance — a presumption that thousands of parents can go right on working a second job, and maybe a third, for being uppity.
To be clear, the DPI was factually wrong.
The agency incorrectly estimated the impact on property taxpayers if Wisconsin ended income limits on its school choice program. Those limits block families making more than three times the poverty line in Milwaukee and Racine or more than 2.2 times the poverty line in the rest of Wisconsin, or about $58,000 for a family of four.
The agency’s estimate, so wrong it’s not worth repeating, rested on laughably unjustifiable assumptions. A colleague and I dissected the DPI’s errors at length in a paper available at the Badger Institute website, but the central error was the DPI’s assumption that every tuition-paying family would right away switch to using the choice program.
Can’t happen. The choice grant, which must be accepted as full payment, is often well below schools’ actual cost, so a school’s ability to take more choice students is limited by its ability to tap outside donors. They need some “private-pay” students to lessen the fundraising load.
And notice what else DPI assumed: Its “baseline,” the status quo, the normal against which it measured impact, assumed tuition-paying families of about 69,000 children statewide should pay taxes to support schools and then go on paying tuition as well to relieve the rest of the state’s taxpayers entirely of the cost of their children’s education.
That is what the parents who pay the tuition for their children to attend the local parochial school, for instance, are doing — they’re easing the taxpayers’ burden. The least the DPI could do is send a thank-you card.
Suppose next year, parents sent all 69,000 of those children to public schools. Families could do that. The state has committed itself to providing an education for every child who shows up. By law, taxpayers must oblige.
Instead of costing taxpayers exactly nothing, those kids would instead be in schools that cost taxpayers an average of $14,259 per child. Do the math, and that’s nearly $1 billion in education costs taxpayers do not now have to bear.
Maybe that’s the baseline against which expanding families’ opportunities should be measured.
Factor in, too, the better results for children that come from expanding access to school choice. Alex Riehle does. He runs admissions for Eastbrook Academy, a 400-student K4-through-12th grade Christian school on Milwaukee’s northeast side. Some kids attend on choice grants, others on tuition paid by their parents. The school wants to open up more choice seats. This year, it got 600 applications for the 13 additional seats it opened. But economics and a 68-year-old building are impediments to expanding faster.
Many of the choice-using families “would have wanted to go to this school anyway,” Riehle says, and some who had been paying tuition got into the choice program when space opened up. The program “allowed them not to have to work two jobs,” he says. “They get to spend time building strong family units, rather than working nights and weekends.”
Securing a choice grant has an amazing effect on children, Riehle said, because their parents are less stressed: “Their grades might go up. Their participation in extracurricular activities might go up,” because Mom and Dad aren’t pulling double overtime to cover tuition.
The DPI’s assumption that this tax-and-tuition double load is justifiable for dissenters fits in with a long-running undercurrent of hostility toward parents who express dissatisfaction or even doubt about what’s on offer at default government-run schools. DPI regulators’ harassment of choice schools and parents over the decades has been legendary. Sometimes, the spite is just more open.
“If parents want to ‘have a say’ in their child’s education, they should home school or pay for private school tuition out of their family budget,” sniped Appleton legislator Rep. Lee Snodgrass on Twitter in February. She deleted the tweet, realizing that telling parents to buzz off was an error. Instead, she said parents should make sure to vote in school board elections and meet with teachers.
Yeah, that’ll do it.
And while Snodgrass backpedaled, it’s remarkable how choice critics repeat her sentiments on Twitter and in op-eds. To these people, parents who want more of a say in their kids’ education than casting a vote once a biennium really had better go work two or three jobs to make tuition. The effrontery of disagreeing with the public-school clerisy about what’s best for your child ought to cost you, the critics seem to say. It's a minority view, fortunately. Wisconsinites support school choice by about a 61% to 32% margin, a new poll shows, and by a 59% to 28% margin they think Snodgrass was full of it. Even the latest Marquette Law School poll showed school choice a clear favorite.
Perhaps the DPI should start changing its assumptions, if not to reflect the views of their fellow Wisconsinites, at least to comport with human decency.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.