January 29, 2006

Wisconsin’s Governor to Inner-City Kids: You’re Stuck

Filed under: Consumer Outrage,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 5:52 pm

Yesterday I posted on “Wisconsin Tort-ure,” and noted how the state’s governor, Jim Doyle, with the help of the state’s courts, is turning its legal system into an antibusiness, anticonsumer quagmire.

Apparently he’s not content to stop there. He’s also determined to limit the effectiveness of the pioneering school-voucher program in the state’s largest city (link may require registration):

Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, enacted with bipartisan support in 1990, provides private school vouchers to students from families at or below 175% of the poverty line. Its constitutionality has been supported by rulings from both the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts.

Yet Mr. Doyle, a union-financed Democrat, has vetoed three attempts to loosen the state law that limits enrollment in the program to 15% of Milwaukee’s public school enrollment. This cap, put in place in 1995 as part of a compromise with anti-choice lawmakers backed by the unions, wasn’t an issue when only a handful of schools were participating. But the program has grown steadily to include 127 schools and more than 14,000 students today. Wisconsin officials expect the voucher program to exceed the 15% threshold next year, which means Mr. Doyle’s schoolhouse-door act is about to have real consequences.

“Had the cap been in effect this year,” says Susan Mitchell of School Choice Wisconsin, “as many as 4,000 students already in the program would have lost seats. No new students could come in, and there would be dozens of schools that have been built because of school choice in Milwaukee that would close. They’re in poor neighborhoods and would never have enough support from tuition-paying parents or donors to keep going.”

There’s no question the program has been a boon to the city’s underprivileged. A 2004 study of high school graduation rates by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute found that students using vouchers to attend Milwaukee’s private schools had a graduation rate of 64%, versus 36% for their public school counterparts. Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby has shown that Milwaukee public schools have raised their standards in the wake of voucher competition.

Mr. Doyle says he will agree to lift the cap to 18%, but only if it’s tied to a change in the school-aid formula that he knows would never pass the Republican legislature–particularly in an election year. So instead of building on this education success, Mr. Doyle and his union allies are poised to close the book.

….. What the Milwaukee (example shows) is that unions and their allies are unwilling to let even successful voucher experiments continue to exist. If they lose one court case, they will sue again–and then again, as long as it takes. And they’ll shop their campaign cash around for years until they find a politician like Jim Doyle willing to sell out Wisconsin’s poorest kids in return for their endorsement. Is there a more destructive force in American public life?

Don’t get me wrong. A 64% graduation rate for the voucher schools, while nothing to celebrate, is at least an improvement. But 36%? Isn’t anyone associated with Miwaukee’s “regular” public schools ashamed, or even the least bit embarrassed?

So Wisconsin’s governor (yes, he’s a Democrat) wants to let trial lawyers run wild and keep inner-city kids trapped in failing schools, and will veto any sensible legislation that runs counter to those goals. He is turning back the clock in a state that was a laboratory for effective social-policy experimentation in the 1990s, including welfare reform that became the model for national reform in 1996. Is there another incumbent governor in America more worthy of defeat?

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