Minnesota 2020 Journal: Wisconsin Drifts
Wisconsin isn’t so different from Minnesota. We both brew and consume beer. We both like cheese and can distinguish between the input and output ends of a dairy cow. We’re cold Great Lake states. We value education. We both have a healthy populist skepticism.
Despite similarities, our paths are diverging in important ways. One example: education. Wisconsin continues to walk the school voucher trail, heading towards a compromised future. Minnesota has responsibly avoided this distraction.
School vouchers are a state-financing mechanism for private school through public education funds. They allow students to attend non-public K12 schools by using tax revenue generated dollars to pay private tuition. The voucher is a type of bond carrying a specific value with use restrictions. It is a form of legal tender with limited exchange, representing payment in return for a particular service or good. In the K12 educational context, the voucher represents the state’s promise to pay for education at non-public schools.
School vouchers have been around since the mid-19th century in Maine and Vermont. The contemporary school voucher advocacy movement generally traces its roots to “The Role of Government in Education,” a 1955 article by conservative economist Milton Friedman. In it, he strongly argues for a school voucher system as a check on government authority and as a more market-efficient use of public resources. By avoiding public education’s physical and intellectual infrastructure costs, public education outcomes could be better delivered through private schools competing for students.
While Friedman created a seductive vision, schooling’s challenges extend far beyond the market competition represented by choosing between Coke and Pepsi. Schooling has many goals. Cost containment and efficiency pale beside the social good of an educated citizenry, a well-prepared workforce and healthy, high functioning families. Friedman’s economist bias is on full display in his article. He values the things that produce measurable data and discounts or disregards those that do not. Education certainly occurs within the marketplace but the desired outcome eludes profit-driven market quantification.
But, this is philosophy. The contemporary school voucher debate is a political and public policy fight that likes to wrap itself in big ideas and grand notions. There’s not, it seems, a problem that a school voucher can’t solve. Achievement gap? School vouchers. Family mobility destabilizing student learning? School vouchers. Systemic poverty and multigenerational socioeconomic educational disparities? School vouchers. Not enough liberty? School vouchers. That’s not policy so much as it is an article of faith.
Minnesota has a progressive governor and progressive legislative majorities. Wisconsin has a conservative governor and conservative legislative majorities. A political scientist couldn’t design a better comparative policy study. Minnesota policymakers recently raised taxes on Minnesota’s highest income earners. Wisconsin declined that step, committing to a conservative, no-new-taxes framework. As part of this policy direction, the conservative majority expanded its state school voucher program to eight additional school districts. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker affirmed his plan to steadily continuing voucher expansion. It’s an unpopular step that continues to divide state residents.
Even as Wisconsin expands its nearly 25-year-old school voucher program, Minnesota’s policymakers repeatedly declined to board that boat. In the late 1980s, Minnesota legislators considered a school voucher program but rejected it in favor of expanding school choice through charter schools. While conservative educational advocates periodically raised the school voucher flag, including during conservative Governor Tim Pawlenty’s tenure when many conservative policies were passed into law, the charter school commitment limited a voucher policy’s viability. Given the choice between charter schools, publicly funded schools operating independently of traditional school districts, and school vouchers permitting public payment of private school tuition, charters easily won the conservative policy priority fight.
The conservative school reform movement’s contemporary experience teaches a single, valuable and powerful lesson: easy solutions to complex educational challenges don’t exist. Conservative educational policy advocates have promised dramatic improvement for well over a generation now. Children’s educational performance continues to parallel peer performance in traditional public schools. The promised quick school voucher fix is neither quick nor a fix. It is, instead, a distraction that pretends to be a solution.
Let me make a simple observation. Minnesota’s schools are doing a terrific job of educating Minnesota’s school children. If we want more school choices, increased academic capacity and a better future workforce, we have to put our money behind our rhetoric. Minnesota’s teachers, administrators and school leaders are completely capable of improving outputs provided that policymakers invest the funds. They don’t need policy, organizational or pedagogical gimmicks; they need Minnesotans and Minnesota policymakers to make education a priority. We’re moving in the right direction while Wisconsin drifts. Let’s stay on the path to prosperity and family stability.