The Voucher Revival

By Lawrence Hardy

If you meet Julie Underwood, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, you could come up with a number of ways to describe her: no-nonsense lawyer, leader at one of the nation’s top research universities, past general counsel of the National School Boards Association. Chances are, you wouldn’t add “conspiracy theorist” to that list. But it’s a phrase Underwood herself employed when describing what she called the well-funded campaign to expand voucher programs throughout the 50 states and weaken support for public schools.

“You know, I never was a conspiracy theorist,” Underwood says, but contends that the push to reduce the size and scope of government by crippling one of its largest sectors -- public education -- is “an organized political campaign.”

“Their goal, really, is to privatize the public schools,” Underwood says.

If this past year is any indication, that privatization campaign is off to a smashing start. By mid-July, lawmakers in at least 30 states had introduced bills to use taxpayers’ money to send students to private schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition, 28 states were looking into creating or expanding tuition tax credits for children in private and parochial schools.

Big victories have come in Wisconsin, where the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Scott Walker expanded the long-running Milwaukee school voucher program to include private schools outside the city, and launched a new program to compete with the Racine Independent School District. Once reserved for poor children, Milwaukee’s program will include families making as much as $70,000 a year, and Racine’s will be open to middle-class parents as well.

“I believe it could be devastating,” says former Racine superintendent Jim Shaw, who retired this past summer. He says the program will drain money from the public schools at a time when the governor and legislature are reducing Wisconsin’s public K-12 funding by $1.8 billion over two years.

NSBA has long opposed vouchers, saying they divert critical dollars from the public schools, eliminate public accountability, and leave many students -- including those with the greatest needs -- behind. Since 2000, it has sponsored an online Voucher Strategy Center that makes the case against vouchers and tracks various efforts to institute vouchers and tuition tax credits in the states.

This year, the center was especially busy, working to keep up with fast-moving events in Wisconsin, Colorado, Indiana, and other states.

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