The idea of school choice is so popular in Wisconsin that it raises a question.
And it is popular. A new poll last month asked 700 likely voters, “Do you generally support or oppose school choice?” and 70% said “support.” That’s a landslide. Sure, the idea was big with Republicans, but 67% of independents favor choice. A majority of Democrats, 53%, did.
Should the state funding that follows kids to private schools, now around $9,000, be closer to the $15,000-per-student average in public schools? Yes, said 57%. Should the state Supreme Court kill the program? No way, said 74%. Should the program expand? Yes, said 63%.
Sure, the poll was commissioned by Wisconsin’s choice-favoring chamber of commerce, but polls repeatedly have shown broad support for parents’ power to pick a school. The Marquette Law School Poll in May asked the same question with icier words about “state funding for vouchers” at “religious schools.” It was 55% in favor. Among people with children at home, it was 65% yes.
Yet in Wisconsin, only 6% of children attend a school using parental choice programs. Another 1.3% go to an independent public charter school.
So those polled people who favor parental choice and want more of it aren’t just angling to get their tuition covered, as critics so often claim. Most are using traditional public district schools. And, so, to the question: Why do they favor choice?
The polls didn’t ask, but maybe a crowd in a Wisconsin barn last month offers insight.
The crowd, about 430 people, an organizer told me, packed the venue on the outskirts of Belgium. That’s a lot of people in a rural area on a Wednesday night. There were free hot dogs, but the beer cost you cash. The event got advance billing on talk radio, but the draw was a lecture and PowerPoint from a UW-Oshkosh professor of English, Duke Pesta.
Pesta spoke for 90 minutes on Wisconsin public school curriculum. The crowd, including the 100 or so without chairs, was rapt.
Pesta’s point was that public schools, including schools in Wisconsin, are offering books and lessons that parents find objectionable. There’s the book pitched at young children that teaches them their parents are unwitting racists and that their own “whiteness” makes them guilty for “stolen land, stolen riches.” There were privilege-shaming episodes. There’s the Department of Public Instruction seminar last winter telling teachers that proper grammar is “curriculum violence.”
On and on went the illustrations of schools teaching not American history but, rather, telling children that their country still is defined by unending racism and that they are defined by their skin as either oppressor or oppressed.
And that was before Pesta started in on the sex stuff.
Notably, Pesta wasn’t rabble-rousing but was laying out steps: Here are titles to look for, here are phrases to listen for. “Ask your kids every day what they read,” he advised.
The crowd reaction wasn’t rage but about what’s next. “Do you have links for some resources?” asked someone in the Q&A. “How do we take this to the streets?”
“That was the whole purpose,” said Randy Kurth, who organized it. “So many people reached out and said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I was one of those people.”
Now the Ozaukee County man is one of those people who attend school board meetings. He and a friend were commiserating about what news reports elsewhere were turning up. They started reading board agendas, learning board procedure, attending, volunteering, networking.
He believes in the good intentions of teachers, he said, and he reckons that the crowd in the barn supports public schools. This makes sense: You don’t spend 90 minutes taking notes on how to recognize critical race theory if you think your schools are already a lost cause.
But he also expects most support school choice, too. Parental discretion is the bottom line, said Kurth: “Parents making that decision about what’s being brought into schools.” What moves people is the threat of freedom’s loss, “that they’re going to dictate what our children are taught and we will have no say.”
One response is to go to the board meetings. And when you lose? You give up and sigh ruefully as your kid is made to confess her “white privilege”? No. You act.
In the WMC poll, one of the most lopsided questions was this: “Parents, not the state, are responsible for determining the type of education that their children need.” Seventy-four percent — three out of four — agreed.
When schools threaten to teach things that parents think are poison, parents need the option to act — to engage, to call the school board to account, to leave for a better school. Parents understand this continuum. They say it in polls, they say it in crowded lecture venues.
And Wisconsin is better for their urgency.
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.