Vice President Mike Pence was the guest of honor Tuesday at the School Choice Week rally at the State Capitol in Madison (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
Vice President Mike Pence was the guest of honor Tuesday at the School Choice Week rally at the State Capitol in Madison (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

VP says voucher schools are ‘here to stay’

Vice President Mike Pence chose the liberal city of Madison to commemorate School Choice Week with a purpose, knowing there were other places where he could highlight the depth of Republican support for alternatives to public education spanning from the state level to the White House.

“There are thousands of these events happening across the country, but I’m here in Wisconsin where it all began,” said Pence in reference to the country’s first school choice program that started in Milwaukee 30 years ago. “Tommy Thompson made history when he approved the country’s first choice program, and (former governor) Scott Walker expanded the voucher program. And I’m here to tell you, President Trump stands with school choice.”

Pence and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who also spoke at the school choice rally, were both drowned out at numerous points during their speeches in the Capitol Rotunda. Chants of “shame, shame, shame,” were levied by protestors, some holding signs that read “Pence: Stop Mixing Church and State” and “Vouch for Public Schools.”

The Vice President’s visit comes at a time when more parents are opting to take advantage of school choice options, including open enrollment, private charter schools and the fast-growing private school voucher programs. 

The expansion of school choice programs has been a divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans since the GOP-controlled Legislature under Walker eliminated public sector unions, including teachers unions, and simultaneously expanded the state’s private school voucher program. 

More than 42,000 students are currently enrolled in private voucher schools across the state. As these programs increase, the public school systems are  feeling the financial pinch. The state is now funding two school systems, with the public school system receiving less as the school choice program grows. 

Pence said one in eight students in Wisconsin is now educated with public funds at the school of their choice. 

“In Wisconsin and across America, school choice is an idea whose time has come,” Pence said. 

Kim Kohlhaas, president of AFT-Wisconsin, said the Vice President has “no business talking about education in Wisconsin, since the Trump administration has consistently attempted to cut billions in federal funding for education, while increasing funding for private and charter schools.”

“In Wisconsin, we’ve seen the problems with ‘school choice’ close up,” said Dina Brennan, Co-President of the Chippewa Falls Federation of Teachers (AFT Local 1907). “This year our state legislature will redirect $223 million in state aid for public schools to fund private and charter schools—an increase of 68 percent since 2012. Our public school districts are left holding the bag, deciding between program cuts for kids or a referendum to increase property taxes.” 

Bryn Horton is the mother of two school-age children. She is also a Sun Prairie School Board member. As a member of a school board, she sees the fiscal side of the argument. The Sun Prairie school district is growing. In the past four years, it has held two referendums in order to accommodate the growth. One was to build two new elementary schools, the other was to build a second high school and to give raises to teachers. Both passed.

But state taxpayer dollars follow students. Despite the fact the district is growing, the district lost $750,000 in funding that was diverted directly to the voucher school program, another $42,000 for the eight students who left the district to attend a voucher school and $40,000 decrease in another funding stream because 13 students left the district to attend a private charter school. 

Horton said she sees a difference between open enrollment, which allows parents to send their child to a school they are not zoned for, and the private charter and voucher programs. 

“I think these programs undermine local neighborhood schools,” Horton said. “And I don’t think I should be paying for other students to go to a private, Catholic (voucher) school. I feel most of these parents would send their child to those schools even if the voucher didn’t exist.”

Pence pointed to Wisconsin educational achievement gaps, which are among the worst in the country, as another reason minority families need school choice programs. 

“Parents should decide where their kids go to school,” Pence said. A parent’s income or zip code shouldn’t matter.”

Keiva Aranda applied for a voucher last year to send her daughter to the 4K program at Lighthouse Christian School in Madison. She said her daughter, who is Hispanic and African-American, is already marginalized. Aranda is aware of the disparity gaps in reading and math for minority students. 

She said she wanted her daughter in a different learning environment and Lighthouse is a bilingual school. And while she knows that not all choice schools are thriving right now, she also does not side with either side of the argument, seeing both as too extreme right now. 

“We are part of that dwindling middle class in Madison,” Aranda said. “The school choice program allows us to give our daughter a quality education and be ahead of what some of her peers elsewhere in the county are experiencing. For us, this is the right choice.”

In another part of the Capitol, Democratic lawmakers rolled out a bill that would phase out the state’s voucher school program.

“Instead of funding a separate, non-transparent school system, we should dedicate ourselves to reducing class sizes,” said Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, “and ensuring our neighborhood public schools have the resources they need so every student in Wisconsin can succeed.”