Public funds for private schools, early childhood through post-secondary
By Susan Mitchell
Proposals to use public funds for private education, especially from church-affiliated and for-profit institutions, are frequently portrayed as unprecedented, untested, and possibly unconstitutional ideas that establish new educational policy in Wisconsin.
This is not the case. Contrary to conventional wisdom, substantial public funds are spent in Wisconsin for private education and early childhood programs. This study documents that:
- More than 30 programs provide state and federal tax dollars to buy education and early childhood programming from private organizations.
- Among the more than 400 private service providers receiving tax support identified in this report are (i) church-affiliated schools, colleges, and universities, (ii) for-profit businesses, and (iii) nonprofit, nonsectarian schools. Many more exist statewide.
- About $164 million a year in public funds is given, loaned, or otherwise provided to about 78,000 Wisconsin residents for private education and early childhood development. Recipients are racially diverse and come mostly from poor and middle-income families.
These facts are poorly understood in part because most private programs that receive public funds focus either on (1) early childhood development, such as Head Start and kindergarten, or (2) post-secondary education. In contrast, few such programs exist at the elementary and secondary level, where resistance from public school officials is strong.
This might change. Proposals currently before the Wisconsin Legislature would expand authority to use public funds for private education at the elementary and secondary level. Governor Tommy Thompson, in his 1993-95 budget, proposes to double the size of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and to expand public school district authority to buy private educational services. Several legislators have proposed a tuition tax credit. Separately, a private, for-profit company has expressed interest in managing several Milwaukee public schools under contract to the district.
Opponents portray these ideas as risky and possibly unconstitutional departures from established public policy. When accepted uncritically, this inaccurate representation skews the way in which the debate is framed and ultimately affects which proposals are enacted.
An understanding of existing policies and programs will allow debate on these proposals to focus on the most important question – educational impact – and help debunk existing myths about the supposed rarity of tax support for private educational choice in Wisconsin. For example, this study documents that:
- For decades, Wisconsin has had programs which provide students with public funds to pay for private education.
- Some programs are based on policy expressly designed to allow students equal opportunity and to encourage educational diversity.
- There are existing tax-supported programs at all levels – Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary, and Post Secondary – which allow the student or parent to choose the private institution.
- Thousands of participants use public funds to attend for-profit institutions.
- Thousands of participants use public funds to attend church-affiliated institutions.
- Pending initiatives do not represent major new policy, but instead extend to elementary and secondary students opportunities widely available in early childhood and post-secondary programs.
- In some cases, pending proposals do not go as far as existing programs: they simply allow school districts to buy educational services just as they now buy other services, such as transportation or professional services.
- Existing programs provide examples of how choice programs can be administered at low cost and regulated effectively.
In this report, Chapter I summarizes the tax-supported programs of private education and early childhood development. Chapters II, III, and IV provide detail.