Over the last decade no issue in Wisconsin has been more closely watched here and across the country than the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
When Wisconsin’s Supreme Court upheld a law giving low-income children the right to choose any private school, it was page one news. A banner headline in the June 11, 1998, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel delivered this message:
Choice ruling ushers in new era
The accompanying article said the “landmark decision” could mean “fundamental changes in the Milwaukee education scene.” The New York Times called the Wisconsin ruling “the most significant legal decision yet on the growing use of school vouchers.”
As school choice supporters celebrated, opponents promptly launched an effort to undercut the court ruling. They nearly succeeded. A month after the decision, expansion of Milwaukee’s program was nearly dead in the water. Investor’s Business Daily explained why:
SCHOOL CHOICE OR BIGGER GOV’T? Milwaukee’s Reform Came Wrapped in Red Tape
Without returning to court, choice opponents had almost reversed the historic ruling. While they failed, their effort illustrates opponents’ three-pronged strategy to block school choice in Wisconsin and other states.
- Kill school choice legislation.
- If that fails, stop school choice in the courts.
- As a last resort, use the threat of regulation to limit private school participation.
This third prong — the regulatory threat — is a central element in the national strategy of choice opponents. As the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) points out, “private and religious schools are unlikely to participate in a voucher program” if that means state regulation in areas such as “admissions…testing, curriculum, and…religious training.”
School choice foes know that legislative chambers and courtrooms are not the final arenas of battle. This means that supporters “must not only contend with courts, governors, and state legislatures, but with the stealth branch of government — the administrative state,” says Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation.
The question of whether choice supporters will be able to forestall efforts to saddle school choice programs with unnecessary rules and regulations is a critical one because many private schools won’t participate in school choice if doing so means a wide range of new rules.
Advocates of publicly financed school choice programs must overcome three forces:
- Organized school choice opponents. Opponents support an extensive regulatory scheme, for the same reason supporters fear one: red tape will limit the number of private schools that accept choice students. The common refrain of choice foes is that the public “expect[s] private and religious schools that receive public dollars…to be regulated and held accountable…just as public schools are.” Opponents also know that more regulation might cause courts to invalidate choice laws if it leads to excessive entanglement of government and religion, a key legal test.
- Other critics of school choice. While organized choice opponents come mainly from the political left, there is another group of critics. As described in Crisis magazine, they “oppose school choice for reasons they believe to be in keeping with conservative principles. What seems to be the inevitable result of choice pro- grams, according to these critics, is the death of private and parochial education as we know it” through excessive regulation. A widely noted 1997 article in TheNationalReviewpredicted that “the price to be paid, the downside [of] government vouchers for private schools…is the virtual abolition of private education through government or judicial control.” The president of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher union, said the article “elegantly undressed the ‘conservative’ case for school vouchers…”
- Well-intended “problem” solvers. These persons respond to isolated or negligible problems with sweeping legislative or judicial “remedies” that would apply new requirements to all schools. Some elected officials are prone to this, seeking to please constituents or gain attention. It is precisely these persons that conservative skeptics fear.