School book and apple

Nowhere can you see self-proclaimed “progressives” more in opposition to progress than on the issue of school choice in the state of Wisconsin.

Over 30 years ago, Wisconsin created the first school choice program in the nation, liberating thousands of families from failing public schools and giving many children, particularly those in our blighted inner cities, their first true chance at a quality education. But Wisconsin has fallen behind states around the nation in pushing educational innovation. Earlier this month, Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona signed a universal school choice bill into law that provides families with $6,500 per student to put toward their education, whether that’s a public, private, parochial or even home school. If Wisconsin wants to lead in school choice again, the Badger State must implement radical reform like universal school choice.

Not too long ago, universal school choice was only a dream for education reformers. But it has now become a reality in Arizona due to a growing cascade of support for school choice nationally. According to a recent Real Clear Opinion Research poll, school choice enjoys a 72% favorability rating, with only 18% truly opposed. Notably, this favorability rating includes 68% of Democrats and 67% of Independents, along with 82% of Republicans. If those numbers aren’t evidence of common ground in our nation, I don’t know what is.

Even in intensely divided Wisconsin, the latest poll from School Choice Wisconsin in February shows school choice is favored by 61.3% of likely voters statewide and a full 71% of Milwaukee voters, many of whom are desperate to get their children out of atrocious Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Maybe liberals are just as tired as conservatives of not having a say in their child’s education.

The teachers’ unions in this country have no one to blame for these developments but themselves. For years, we’ve all heard of the complaints and excuses about parents not being involved in their children’s education and how we need to get those parents involved in order to improve the system. Well, the unions got exactly what they asked for during the pandemic. During the lockdowns, parents got the opportunity not only to see what was going on in their children’s “classrooms,” and were suitably unimpressed, but the parents saw teachers, administrators and school boards eschewing critical instruction for their kids in favor of indoctrination of ideological agendas like critical race theory. They saw the resistance, moreover, of many unions (and the politicians in their back pockets), to keep schools closed way past the persuasiveness of their sanctimonious double-speak and the subsequent harm it caused. It has become clear to a majority of parents that the system of public education we have now has become self-serving to the point of failure and is in drastic need of a complete overhaul, much to the unions’ chagrin.

Yet Wisconsin, the birthplace of school choice, continues to languish and fall behind as the state’s public schools continue to fail. Wisconsin has the largest achievement gap between Black and white students in the nation. There are more than 130 ZIP codes in the state that have no high-performing schools within 10 miles. MPS, which is the state’s largest school district, reported Forward Exam proficiency rates as low as 7.3% in English and 4.2% in math during the 2020-21 school year.

It's time that legislators look at these numbers and give a drastic reform like universal school choice a try in Wisconsin. It has been demonstrated that not only do the Badger State’s voucher and public charter schools tend to perform better than traditional public schools, but also that traditional public schools that are forced to compete with voucher and charter schools perform better as well.

If we truly care about the children like we say we do, then let us allow those who know them best decide where their God-given talents will best flourish. It is high time for Wisconsin to reassume its position as a leader in educational innovation and school choice.

Shannon Whitworth is a Bradley Freedom Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the director of the free enterprise academy at Milwaukee Lutheran High School.

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