For over thirty years, Wisconsin has been at the forefront of educational innovation with its school choice program, providing low-income parents the opportunity to select the best educational environment for their children, which includes both secular and religious private schools.
Our Parental Choice Program began in 1990 with just the City of Milwaukee, but has expanded to include Milwaukee County, and under the Walker administration, a Racine choice program and a statewide choice program were launched. Currently, about 52,000 students are enrolled in private schools using a state-issued voucher.
As of last week, this successful program is facing a challenge in the form of a lawsuit filed by the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC, a leftist group publicly stating it is out to destroy Wisconsin’s choice program. This lawsuit was filed directly to the state Supreme Court and asks the court to shut down the choice program before the 2024-2025 school year. It is disheartening to witness such a baseless, politically motivated attack on a program that has empowered families and improved educational outcomes for tens of thousands of children.
The essence of the lawsuit revolves around the claim that the school choice program diverts funds from public schools, crippling their ability to provide quality education, which is a fundamentally flawed assertion. Currently, statewide public school districts receive, on average, almost $15,000 per student of taxpayer money. Even with the increase in vouchers that the governor signed into law in the new budget, vouchers for K-8 students are just 64% of that amount, while vouchers for high school students are now 81% of the public school per-student cost. What this means is the voucher programs are saving taxpayers money.
Importantly, recent research done by School Choice Wisconsin shows that the choice programs are giving taxpayers a very good return, with voucher students consistently outperforming their public school peers on core subjects such as reading and math, as well as on standardized tests such as the ACT and the state’s Knowledge and Concepts Exam.
This lawsuit fails to acknowledge the diverse needs of Wisconsin’s students. Every child is unique, with individual learning styles, interests, and aspirations. Additionally, families differ in their values. Many families today, especially Christians, are realizing public schools are foisting values on their children that are antithetical to their family values. A one-size-fits-all approach to education simply does not suffice. School choice ensures that parents can tailor their child’s education to match what they want for their children, fostering an environment where students can thrive academically and personally, and also for many, spiritually.
While the lawsuit does not directly raise concerns about the participation of religious schools in Wisconsin’s school choice program, it is important to know that this issue was settled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998 in a case that challenged the original Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The high court determined including religious private schools in the choice program did not violate either the US Constitution’s First Amendment or Wisconsin’s constitution. Subsequent and quite recent US Supreme Court decisions have also upheld the inclusion of religious private schools in such programs.
The bottom line is we have people in our state who despise the choice program; they have tried to discredit it and undo it for years. Now, with our state Supreme Court leaning liberal, they believe the time is right to aggressively use the courts to accomplish their goal. Fortunately, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is ready to fully defend this educational option on behalf of the tens of thousands of students and families who are flourishing because of this program. We call on Christians to pray for the justices and their decision and for the attorneys who will be involved with this high-stakes case.