In a move that makes the stakes of the 2022 elections crystal clear, Wisconsin Republicans are preparing to pass a slate of typical 2022 Republican education bills, along with one that would gut the state’s public schools and raise property taxes. On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled (and heavily gerrymandered) state Assembly passed a series of education bills, including one to gut school mask mandates and a “Parental Bill of Rights” that would endanger LGBTQ students and allow parents to sue teachers for a long list of vague reasons.
On top of all that, Assembly Republicans passed a bill dramatically expanding the state’s private school voucher programs. The bill is expected to pass the Republican-controlled state Senate before being vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former state superintendent of public instruction. But if a Republican defeats Evers in November, the bill would likely become law.
Vouchers are a major Republican program to pull money and students out of public schools, sending them to private, often religious ones. Wisconsin has the nation’s oldest voucher program, which was focused on low-income students in Milwaukee. That program has shown mixed results across multiple studies, but Republicans are all about any program that will defund public schools, so they love it.
Vouchers have been expanded to wealthier families, but now Republicans are pushing a bill that would eliminate income caps on families eligible to receive vouchers—it would, in fact, send vouchers to families who already send their kids to private school. So a program that, whatever you think of it, was originally targeted to low-income, mostly Black families would be expanded to wealthy families. The bill would also eliminate caps on the number of students who can participate. In essence, it would create a free-for-all, massively subsidizing private schools at the expense of public ones.
The state Department of Public Instruction estimates that the bill would raise property taxes across the state by $577 million.
“This local property tax hike is over a half of a billion dollars a year and that is to fund a competing school system that began 30 years ago as a little pilot program for our students in poverty,” according to Democratic Rep. Sondy Pope.
In a 2021 interview, Charles Siler, a former lobbyist for school privatization organizations who turned against his former work, explained the right’s push for voucher programs despite their unpopularity:
Their hostility to public education is best described as being the nexus of three parts. First, they want to minimize any government spending whatsoever, and public education is one of the largest line items in any state budget. Getting rid of public education spending would massively reduce the tax burden on wealthy individuals at the state level.
Public schools are also incredibly popular, and they don’t want the general public to view public institutions as effective or popular. It’s why they’ve driven a false narrative about “failing schools” for decades now, and it’s also why they continually attack Social Security, Medicare, public pensions, public transportation and more because they know it’s impossible to get people to share their vision for limited government when people have so many positive experiences with government programs. And lastly, it’s about diminishing collective power. Taking down public schools also means taking down teachers unions, PTOs, local school boards and all the other ways those of us who aren’t exceptionally wealthy come together to push for collective investment in our communities.
Public schools and the communities around them represent the kind of togetherness privatization advocates despise.
That’s in action in Wisconsin right now. And if Republicans defeat Evers in November, they’ll be able to push it across the finish line, along with every other toxic part of their assault on LGBTQ kids, teachers, and public health.