In recent school board elections, few issues have been as contentious or emotional as that of school choice. Proponents of charter schools and school vouchers say they offer families options when traditional public schools aren’t a good fit for their children; opponents say they drain resources from public schools and leave some children behind.
Of course, the issue is not that simple.
With a Madison school board election coming up April 2, and with conversations around charters and vouchers affecting the last several school board races, we feel it’s important that voters be fully informed. So I spoke with Dr. John Witte, an expert on educational policy at the LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Witte has studied charter and voucher policies and their effects for more than 30 years.
Here’s what you need to know before you vote.
Candidates Ali Muldrow and Ananda Mirilli both oppose school vouchers. These two candidates have both run for school board before, and both have been mischaracterized at one time or another as pro-voucher candidates.
“I’m opposing the use of public funds to fund any private enterprise,” Mirilli said.
“I am categorically opposed to vouchers,” said Muldrow. “I believe the worst thing we can do for public education is subsidize private education.”
Both say they only support what are called “instrumentality charter schools” — public charter schools approved and controlled fully by the school district, like Badger Rock Middle School and Nuestro Mundo (more on that below).
Kaleem Caire, on the other hand, runs a non-instrumentality charter school — a public school governed by the University of Wisconsin, not the Madison school board — and once lobbied in favor of voucher school programs in Washington, DC.
TJ Mertz, the incumbent against whom Mirilli is running, opposed Caire’s previous attempt to get a charter approved by the Madison school board.
Muldrow’s opponent, conservative blogger David Blaska, has said he’s generally in favor of school choice, including both charters and vouchers.
Caire’s opponent, Cristiana Carusi, is opposed to voucher and non-instrumentality charter schools.
Charters and vouchers aren’t the same thing — and the school board is only involved in one of them. School vouchers, first introduced in Wisconsin in 1990, “are using public taxpayer money to send children to private schools,” says Witte. Originally, only families in Milwaukee could use school vouchers, and only for secular schools. Since then, state statutes have expanded the programs to allow for school vouchers to be used for schools across the state, and to be used for religious schools, such as Lighthouse Christian School here in Madison. School voucher enrollment has grown from just over 300 in 1990 to over 33,000 in 2017-18.
Some oppose school vouchers on First Amendment grounds, arguing that public money shouldn’t fund religious education, and some religious schools have been hesitant to accept school vouchers because they don’t want to open their religious education to government interference.
Governor Tony Evers, a former teacher and Department of Public Instruction Superintendent, has said he will move to scale back school voucher programs.
Charter schools, on the other hand, are public schools, funded with taxpayer money and subject to the control of public agencies.
There are generally two types of school charters — instrumentality and non-instrumentality. Instrumentality charter schools are set up, operated by and accountable to the local school board. They have somewhat more flexibility in how they operate, have some control over admission and often focus on a single area of study such as language immersion (as in the case of Nuestro Mundo for example) or technology. They might also be designed especially to support a certain kind of student, such as ones with behavior issues or learning disabilities. In most other respects, however, they look and act like any other public school.
Non-instrumentality charter schools, on the other hand, are granted their charter by another government agency, such as the University of Wisconsin or UW-Milwaukee. They’re still funded by taxpayer money but usually operated by private nonprofit organizations. One City School, for example, founded by school board candidate Kaleem Caire, has both a private preschool and a public, non-instrumentality charter school that provides 4k and kindergarten and will soon expand all the way to sixth grade.
Local school boards have very little say over school voucher programs. Or non-instrumentality charter school programs. While a school board candidate or member can express an opinion in opposition to school choice programs, they have almost no authority to curb or reduce enrollment in voucher schools or non-instrumentality charter schools.
Charter and voucher school teachers have to be certified, but not in quite the same way. Voucher school teachers are required to be certified but not by the state of Wisconsin DPI.
“That’s been a big fight,” Witte said. “They have to be certified by some certification type of agency, and they do that. But there are a lot of ploys to certify teachers. And there are particularly a lot of ways in private schools to certify teachers.”
Charter school teachers, on the other hand, are almost always certified in the same way as other public school teachers.
“Charter schools almost always have fully certified teachers because they’re either instrumentalities where their part of a school system and they have to be (certified) because they’re part of a union, or they’re still public schools so they need the certification,” Witte said. “The way a non-instrumentality charter will work is the teachers will often come from the district. And they may stay in the union, they may not. In other ways, they’re already teaching someplace and they just shift over. So they tend to be very highly certified.”
It’s also worth noting that public school teachers these days don’t really have to be certified in traditional ways, either, due to continuing teacher shortages.
“DPI has really relaxed what they’ll take” for certification, Witte said. “So in other words, if you could be a business person or a military officer or something like that and you can make a case, you could probably get certified to teach in the public schools now because there’s such a shortage.”
Charter and voucher schools don’t have to accommodate every child with a disability — but neither do traditional public schools. Witte said many public schools, especially urban schools, over-identify disabilities.
“What’s happening is these kids are acting out so seriously in classes that the teachers say, ‘We gotta get this kid out of here,’ and they judge them as having a learning disability which in an inner-city situation is very easy to do for a lot of kids,” he said. “Then they can get them out of the classroom. So they over-identify.The public schools of the inner cities have a tendency to over-identify, and then the private schools have an incentive to under-identify because they don’t get any money for it and they often don’t have the resources for it. The public schools have resources because they have people who specialize in teaching (kids with disabilities). And they have special resource rooms. And they end up with about twice as much money. Two point two times more money for a disabled kid as for a regular kid. So there’s an incentive there.”
Private voucher schools, however, don’t get that extra money.
As many as 20 percent of students in Milwaukee, for example, have individual education plans (IEPs), meaning they’ve been identified by the school as having some form of disability. Witte says, based on his research, around 12 or 13 percent actually have disabilities, whereas the rest just have behavioral challenges that get “diagnosed” as learning disabilities.
Voucher schools, on the other hand, only identify about two percent as having disabilities — which doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t take kids with disabilities. Witte said many voucher schools take kids with IEPs from the public schools and just educated them in the general classroom without identifying them as disabled.
Voucher schools, in his opinion, under-identify disabilities — meaning it’s possible some students with learning disabilities in voucher schools should have more special education than they’re getting, but smaller class size helps voucher schools accommodate them nonetheless.
When it comes to physical disabilities, all schools are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to make “reasonable accommodations” for physically disabled students — a certain percentage of desks must be wheelchair-accessible, for example. But what’s “reasonable” in one school might not be in another. If a child is Deaf, for example, Madison or Milwaukee schools might be able to offer an interpreter, or place the student in a classroom where the teacher knows American Sign Language. But a smaller district with a smaller staff would not be required to provide those services, necessarily, Witte said.
A smaller public school, say, “up in northern Wisconsin, wouldn’t have a chance to deal with a deaf child. They wouldn’t know where to start. That child would be sent to a special school,” Witte said.
Voucher schools do move money from public schools to private ones, but might also save the public schools money. Like many issues in education, it’s not simple. Witte notes that the students who use vouchers tend to be more expensive to educate. Plus, there’s no way to know whether those voucher students would have gone to public schools without the vouchers; some would have used financial aid or other means to go to private schools. At least one study suggests that even assuming most voucher students would have stayed in public schools without vouchers, vouchers, in the long run, save school districts money.
Of course that only works if a certain number of students take up the vouchers, Witte noted.
“Where do the savings come from the public school? It’s the marginal cost of the kid,” he said. “In other words, the additional cost. So if they can’t reduce (staff) in a school or they can’t close a school or something like that … all it does is reduce class size and the cost don’t go down at all.”
Instrumentality charter schools do not move money out of the school district because they are public schools run and funded by the district. Opening an instrumentality charter is, from a funding perspective, basically just like opening any other new school.
A non-instrumentality charter school, on the other hand, does shift public money from one public school to another, but with similar ramifications as moving money to a voucher school.
Vouchers are only available to low-income families. However, enrollment in charter schools is not based on income.
There’s not a lot of data on whether students do better in voucher or charter schools. In charter schools, Witte said, “their performance academically is all over the map. Some of them, and the ones that are doing it well, are very good academically. They do better than public schools. And some of them that are started don’t do as well as public schools on achievement test scores or even in graduation. We have very little statistics throughout the country on who graduates and who goes on to college from charter schools. We do know, in my studies in Milwaukee, that voucher kids do not do that much better on achievement tests. They do about the same as Milwaukee public school kids. But they do better in terms in what we call attainment, which is graduating from high school and going to college.”
In other words, it seems that a voucher student in Milwaukee won’t necessarily get better grades, but is more likely to graduate and go to college.
Behavior is a different story, Witte said.
“We have all kinds of survey studies and behavioral studies that say the parents are much happier and the students are much happier with the behavioral situation and the safety that occurs in voucher schools. And also there’s some incidence of that in charter schools, but again that varies,” he said.
Some data also suggests that African Americans especially can benefit from both vouchers and charters.
“There is pretty much of a consensus building that African American kids do better in charter schools, when they switch to charter schools, than other races. And actually African Americans … and poor kids … use charter schools more than middle-class white kid or even middle-class Hispanics,” he said.
The school board election is April 2. Whatever your opinion on school choice or the many other issues facing the school board today, we urge you to vote!