Rickert is Wrong: PUBLIC schools are the popular choice in Wisconsin

Chris Rickert of the Wisconsin State Journal posted a staggeringly and dangerously deceptive opinion piece this week: "Public school advocates dismiss popularity of vouchers at their own risk" (3/20/14).

In it, Rickert bases his entire argument on a laughable fallacy: the alleged popularity of vouchers in Wisconsin.  His absurd premise is this: Application of schools to participate in the program is up about 30% (to 68 schools this year, up from 48 last year) and application of students is expected to double this year.  Therefore, he assumes, if 2400 people applied last year, and that number is expected to double this year, the voucher program must be very popular. 

Let's put those figures into perspective.   There are 874,414 students enrolled in Wisconsin public schools this year.  If, as expected, the number of voucher applications doubles to 4,800 this year, that figure would represent 0.5% of public school enrollment in this state.

What's more, Rickert cites, and then ignores, data that shows how deeply unpopular vouchers are with the typical Wisconsin family: numbers from DPI demonstrate that the vast majority - 79% (!) -  of students who applied for vouchers to attend private schools this year already attend those schools.  If this trend continues, then only 21% of the 0.5% of voucher applicants statewide would represent new enrollment in the program.  If you like math, that means NEW voucher applications would represent 0.11% of the public school population in Wisconsin.

The question: by what delusion of editorial fantasy does a one-tenth-of-one-percent application rate represent "popularity?"

Which makes me wonder how Rickert has a job writing about anything, much less public education.

Despite state-wide expansion of the program, these infinitesimal application numbers tell us what we already knew through polling and public testimony: Wisconsin parents support, and want the state to invest in, public schools.  Not publicly-funded coupons to private schools.  Parents, overwhelmingly, want to keep their kids in local public schools and want to see those schools funded at levels that support all students.

Rickert also avoids what I think is a very telling bit of information in the new DPI data:  only 25 of the 48 schools participating in the statewide voucher program this year reapplied for next year. Of the 68 applications, 43 are new schools. This means OVER HALF of the current participating voucher schools in Wisconsin are opting out of the program!  Hardly an indicator of popularity, in my view, but hey.  I'm not the journalist here.

Further, Rickert's homework is shoddy at best and deceptive at worst.  He implies that vouchers are "cheaper" for taxpayers, and offers a distorted picture of the data, writing that Rep. Sondy Pope's "concern about shifting tax dollars from public schools to voucher schools seems misplaced, given that, on average, taxpayers spend about $5,000 more per public school student than they spend on a voucher," a figure he calculates (apparently; show your work, please!) by subtracting the voucher cost from the "total cost" of year-long education for a public school student.  This is very misleading. And it doesn't take into account at all the additional tax break Wisconsin parents are eligible for if they pay private school tuition. As the Wisconsin School Administrator's Alliance has pointed out:
Two recent memos by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) raise
more startling issues that should be of concern to all Wisconsin parents and
taxpayers. The first shows that while the average public school student in
Wisconsin receives roughly $4,900 of general state aid, the state guarantees
private voucher school students $6,442 in aid from the state and local school
districts. Over 80% of school districts now receive less than the guaranteed
voucher amount, and voucher advocates are pushing lawmakers to increase the
voucher guarantee to $8,000 or more.
[emphasis mine]
Rickert's stunningly simplistic assessment "A taxpayer-funded education at a private school is still a taxpayer-funded education," demonstrates not just naivete (or, less generously, willful ignorance) about the complicated formula that determines school funding, but a disturbing disrespect for accountability to the taxpayer. Private schools are subject to very little oversight or regulation and the lack of consistency (in terms of curriculum, staffing, financing, policy, etc) puts these "public" private schools, as Rickert would call them, in direct violation of the Wisconsin state constitution:
"The legislature shall provide by law for district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein." - Wisconsin State Constitution, Article X, Section 3
On the very day when this accountability is being pushed forward and debated in the legislature, Rickert chooses to move our focus away from the real issue and point it at a shadow: his peculiar delusions about the "popularity" of the program.

But, if you can believe it, none of this is even my biggest issue with Rickert's pseudo-analysis.  The fallacy that really pushed me over the edge was that in his larger attempt to besmirch "public school advocates" and voucher opponents, he lumps them together as a stodgy group of politicians and fools, resistant to change, and willfully ignores the reality: that the people most vocally opposed to vouchers in Wisconsin are the people most invested in defending quality, equity and accountability in both public and private schools - parents, advocacy groups, and education professionals.  

I count myself among that number.  I care deeply about protecting and defending our public schools, particularly against the threats of the out-of-state profiteers who have invested countless dollars into propping up "school choice" candidates and writing legislation that undermines public schools and steals tax dollars from the education budget to fund private education - including religious education.

And for that reason I wrote this letter to the editor to the Wisconsin State Journal. I'm reprinting it here because they edited the fire out of it in their print/online version and I think many of the key points are worth repeating:

Dear Wisconsin State Journal:

If Chris Rickert wants to pretend that giving people who can already afford private schools a coupon (voucher) AND a tax break is as valid an expenditure of tax dollars as any other "public education," then he should spend his column-writing time focusing on all the ways those "public" private schools must be held accountable to the public like traditional public schools are,  instead of maligning those who have been calling for such accountability.
Rickert fails to mention that "opponents" of voucher programs have been led most vocally not by politicians, but by the state's largest special interest group when it comes to education: PARENTS. 
Parents, particularly parents of special needs students, have spoken forcefully in support of our kids and our schools to demand accountability and equity in the voucher program. 
Voucher schools discriminate against students with special needs and have a track record of "counseling out" under-performing students - sending them back to public schools.  The local district then absorbs the costs educating these kids while the voucher school keeps the money.  Not exactly the "bargain" Rickert claims vouchers represent to taxpayers, and certainly not the "choice" parents thought they were getting. 
The system is set up to fleece taxpayers and our already-strapped public schools, at the benefit of the wealthy and the expense of our most vulnerable students. Rickert glibly glosses over the fact that 75% of voucher applicants already attend private schools, and fails to mention that even with vouchers, private schools are out of reach for the average Wisconsinite.
That Chris Rickert chooses to side with the billion-dollar out-of-state pro-"choice" lobby and ignore the legitimate concerns of the vast majority of Wisconsin parents and taxpayers makes me wonder why someone so willfully out of touch with education advocacy in Wisconsin has been entrusted with the extremely important task of writing about it.
Heather DuBois Bourenane
Sun Prairie

Note: This post has been updated to correct my math.  Forgot to move the decimal point.  Oops. I think the percentages are right now.  Thanks to Ed Hughes for pointing out the error!


  1. Popularity is always used as a distraction away from the inherent problems with vouchers. Notice how almost all stories about vouchers tout their "popularity." It's all about how many people sucked into the hype...like that's a selling point? They never brag about grades, and graduation rates are manipulated and gamed so much that they're unreliable. Private schools can promise anything in their ads and brochures, and benefit from outside groups supporting privatization.

    Popularity is also one way to play on the guilt some parents feel about doing all they can for their child. Supposedly, concerned parents send their kids to private schools. With the failure rate and stories of private schools in Milwaukee, why would anyone want to invest in something that could close overnight? Those dollars are gone forever. Public school dollars will always be there, because those schools are accountable to taxpayers.

  2. Just a bit of math nitpicking here: 4,800 is a little over 0.5% of 874,414, or 0.005 of it, but not 0.005%. 21% (not 31%) of voucher applicants being currently enrolled in public schools means that its popularity among 0.1%.

    It doesn't make any difference to your point, just to the detail of the figures.

    1. thanks, Geoff! Someone else pointed that out right away - forgot to move the decimal point. Thanks for the careful reading - I appreciate it!

  3. I mentioned my disdain for Mr. Rickert a while ago, and it also happened to be on the voucher subject. I didn't think it would prove to be one of the more popular postings on the Soapbox, but it hit like wildfire when I first published it: http://wisoapbox.blogspot.com/2013/06/chris-rickert-really-doesnt-know-what.html

    Why I even read what he writes, I'll never understand. I realize my ramblings aren't exactly that well written, but even I could do better if I only had to do two or three columns a week.

  4. Heather, I have mixed feelings about this blog post.

    While I admire the fact that you sharply criticized Chris Rickert for using the Wisconsin State Journal, a mainstream media outlet, to aid and abet the Republican-led destruction of public education in Wisconsin by spewing political propaganda supporting school vouchers (presumably because the advertisers for mainstream media outlets in Wisconsin have a vested interest in school privatization schemes), as well as the fact that you used facts to point out that school vouchers are a scam and a waste of taxpayer money, I strongly disagree with your support for school voucher accountability. Those who support school voucher accountability measures are effectively supporting school vouchers, since accountability measures don't eliminate the voucher programs altogether. The only true anti-voucher positions are those of gradual repeal (i.e., phase-out) or immediate repeal. In case you're wondering, I support the gradual repeal of school vouchers in Wisconsin and other voucher states/jurisdictions.

    1. Aaron, don't get the wrong idea here. I didn't say I personally support accountability measures (or vouchers). I also oppose them entirely. But what I'm saying is Rickert's attempt to malign pro-education camp fails to take into account that the loudest voices in this debate have been those calling attention to the issue of accountability.

      I agree with you that the focus on accountability distracts us from the real point - that if voucher schools are to be considered "public" (especially in the way Rickert suggests), they are in clear violation of the state constitution. I support an immediate repeal of the statewide expansion and gradual repeal of the Milwaukee/Racine programs.

    2. Oh, I get what you were saying now. I apologize for taking you out of context.

    3. No worries - it's a complicated issue and I was trying not to get into my own position too much, but rather to focus on the fallacies Rickert employs to reach his bizarre conclusion. One of the most frustrating things about Mr. Rickert is his tendency to oversimplify things to the point of incoherency so that he can adopt what seems to be a "moderate" position on everything. This does no service to the readers of the State Journal, or those looking for clarity on issue that matter very much to everyone with a stake in public education - which is pretty much everyone.