This piece ran as a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 4, 2023.
The definition of a public school? For a third of a century, Wisconsin has stretched it and bent it into new shapes — and fought about it. The state is still doing all of these, especially the fighting.
How people define a public school often says a lot about where they stand on big education issues. Look at some of the current controversies in Wisconsin:
- A major lawsuit challenging the funding mechanisms and even the existence of the state’s voucher and charter school programs.
- Decisions on funding the different sectors of schools in Wisconsin that were pivotal in reaching agreement over a state budget for the next two years.
- Disputes over rules about how much private schools need to disclose publicly.
- Enforcement of public regulations on private schools.
At their heart, each involves the definition of a public school. (Oh, and money.)
When you say “public school,” do you limit that to schools that are part of a traditional school system? Is a charter school, which operates in a somewhat independent fashion, a public school? Is a private school, including a religious school, a public school in some ways if it enrolls students whose education is paid for with tax dollars?
Many advocates of the conventional public school system argue that Wisconsin can’t afford to pay for two major school systems, one public, one private, and that the financial health of the public system is getting worse, to a worrisome degree.
Many voucher advocates call traditional public schools “government schools” and say children who go to other schools are still part of the public, that they and their parents are making their own choices about what is best for schooling, and that they should get public support for their education.
The definition of a public school was once simple. Neighborhood public schools offered general education, were funded by tax dollars, and operated as part of a system led by an elected school board. Private schools — Catholic or Lutheran or whatever else — were often religious, were funded by private entities, parents and individual donors, and were overseen by a private board or religious organization.
This now seems quaint. In Milwaukee, almost half of all kindergarten through 12th-grade children who are getting publicly funded education are not enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools system. The first urban school voucher program in America began small in Milwaukee in 1990, with a few hundred students in seven private schools. Now, publicly funded school choice options beyond conventional public schools involve several hundred schools and more than 66,000 students statewide.
Nationwide, there has been a surge of legislation allowing public money to support the education of students not in conventional public schools. About 10 states now have laws offering payments for any and all students to go to the schools of their choice.
“I do think there are some pretty blurry lines on what you can call public education when we’re putting millions of dollars into something that is not a traditional public school,” author Cara Fitzpatrick said during a recent program at Marquette Law School. Fitzpatrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter, is the author of a book released in September: “The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War over Education in America.” (I moderated the Marquette Law program.)
She said the book tells the history of the school choice movement and is not intended to advocate for who is right. Nor is she saying that public schools are literally dead or dying, given that about 90% of American schoolchildren continue to attend schools that are part of conventional public systems.
But, as a journalist, Fitzpatrick has a clear conclusion about who is winning the political wars over defining public education. The first sentence of Fitzpatrick’s book sets out her take: “Public education in America is in jeopardy.” She describes the book as “a story of how conservatives successfully advocated for an expansive version of publicly funded education — driven by the values of the free market — by adopting the language of civil rights while simultaneously attacking public schools.”
Milwaukee as the birthplace of vouchers plays a big role in the book. One of the book’s most prominent and interesting figures is the late state Rep. Annette Polly Williams. Williams was an early advocate of vouchers as a way of giving low-income children more choices in education.
But Williams, who was Black, became disaffected from the movement when she thought it was being taken over by white conservatives who weren’t interested in low-income children but who wanted vouchers for all children — including those who were already well off or in private school. The social equity goal that Williams favored has generally been pushed to the side nationwide.
The “sector wars” between public school advocates and school choice advocates continue to be heated in Wisconsin. If anything, the battles have become even more heated, fueled by the growth of school choice programs, the effects of the pandemic and increased partisan polarization. Consider five recent aspects of the continuing hostilities:
The Wisconsin state budget: Vouchers increase. So, to a lesser degree, did revenue caps for school districts.
The politics were complex, but the outcome was clear when it came to the deal between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers at the heart of the state budget passed in June. Payments per students for kids in charter schools or using vouchers in private schools went up a lot. The revenue cap, which goes far in shaping public school budgets, was increased a more modest amount.
The Minocqua Brewing suit challenges Wisconsin school vouchers
Kirk Bangstad, owner of the Minocqua Brewing Co. and a strong partisan of progressive causes, is a central figure in a broad legal challenge filed in October with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The suit is labeled informally with the name of his northern Wisconsin brewery. The plaintiffs seek to have the state Supreme Court take up the case directly, rather than going through lower courts first. This is the broadest legal challenge to vouchers and charters in years. The plaintiffs hope the Supreme Court, with its new liberal majority, will see things their way.
Requirements for Wisconsin schools to disclose financial data publicly
Backed by Republicans, the Legislature passed a law requiring schools to make a lot of their financial information more accessible online. Some private school advocates balked at being included in the requirements, arguing that they were different than public schools. Facing criticism that it’s hard to take public money and not be open about how it’s used, they backed down.
Cutting off Holy Redeemer school in Milwaukee from voucher funds
Just before the school year began, the state Department of Public Instruction ordered that Holy Redeemer Christian Academy in Milwaukee be cut off from receiving voucher money for failing to meet financial requirements set by the state. The long-standing school, with leadership that is politically well connected, appears to still be operating (no one from the school has returned numerous phone calls) and is fighting the DPI decision.
Action such as this was more frequent 15 or so years ago, when accountability systems for voucher schools were developing, often in response to practices that were questionable or worse. These days, private schools generally act more responsibly, and such enforcement is rare.
New charter funding
Charter schools statewide generally draw less attention and heat. Many are staffed by public school employees, some are not. It’s a complicated picture — but it may be poised to grow. DPI announced in early October that it was awarded $58 million in federal funds to strengthen systems around charter schools. The money could allow dozens of new charter schools, or could allow existing charters to expand or open additional locations.
The way the debate plays out in coming years over what is a public school and how different types of schools should be funded will be a key to the vitality of schools of all kinds across Wisconsin — which, ultimately, is a key to the educational outcomes of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin children.
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.