By Steve Gunn

MADISON, Wis. – If the battle over school choice has taught us anything, it’s that education is a very personal matter.

handsinropeOne school might provide an ideal curriculum and environment for one child, but it may not be the best fit for another.

There have been countless cases where failing students have switched schools and done much better in a short period of time. No single educational option fits all children.

That’s one of the reasons why the old system of trapping kids into geographically-based public school districts has been discredited. The public school may be fine for some students and not so good for others. All families need the freedom to shop and choose the school that works best for their kids.

That should be the case even if only one family in a school district wants something different. That family should be free to take its share of state education money and spend it at their school of choice.

But that type of freedom has been seriously threatened in Wisconsin by State Senate President Mike Ellis, who announced Thursday that he will try to block any expansion of the state’s private school voucher program unless voters in any particular school district approve such a measure.

The state voucher program is currently only available in Milwaukee and Racine, where thousands of families have chosen to use it.

The popularity of the program was demonstrated again this week, when 61 percent of respondents in a new EAGnews poll of likely Wisconsin voters said all students should have access to private schools.

But Ellis is clearly not part of the 61 percent.

“We will have democracy at its purest,” Ellis was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. “The people will decide.”

Will they? Allowing school choice to be decided at the ballot box would enable school boards and local teacher unions to tinker with the ballot language and engage in misinformation campaigns to confuse voters.

Ellis’ threat could block an effort by Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans to expand the voucher program in the upcoming state budget. While he’s made no official announcement, Walker has stated that he wants more school choice for Wisconsin families.

It’s not clear whether Ellis could keep a voucher expansion from coming up for a vote in the Senate, or whether he would have to convince a majority of his Senate colleagues to approve the type of program he prefers.

The irony is that Ellis is also a Republican, and his stubborn stance could kill the effort of his own party to improve education for the children of Wisconsin.

Let each family decide for itself

Ellis’ plan would trample individual rights in an area where individual needs should be the biggest concern.

The main argument against private school vouchers is that they siphon money away from traditional public schools. That happens when students decide to leave a school district and take their share of state aid to a private or charter school.

By calling for a vote of the people in each school district, Ellis is obviously trying to protect public school budgets. But he’s missing his own point in the process.

If a large majority of voters in any given school district are satisfied with the education their children are receiving, there will be little interest in charter schools or private school vouchers, even if they are available. There’s no need for a public vote. The fact that most kids stay in their home district will tell the story.

But the handful of families who aren’t satisfied with the schools should still have the right to leave. The loss of a dozen students is not going to cripple any public school budget.

If, on the other hand, there’s a split in a community about the quality of any given school district, that’s a pretty good sign that the district has problems and some kids may be better served elsewhere. Again, there’s no need for an election. The fact that a significant number of kids are leaving tells the story.

Let’s say the vote in District X is 51-49 percent against having vouchers. That’s pretty indecisive. Does Ellis really believe kids should be blocked from school choice, based on election results that are too close to make a broad assumption about the will of the community?

A child’s education is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Why not let every student vote with their feet by choosing the school of their preference?

If so many kids leave a particular school that it affects the budget, it should be a clear message to school officials that they are doing something wrong. Perhaps they should poll parents and students and learn how to provide the kind of services that will keep kids at home.

They’re already doing that in the Madison district, which has experienced a significant loss of students through the state’s open enrollment program.

It’s odd that nobody is calling for an end to the open enrollment program (or charter schools, for that matter), which allows children to move to any public school district they choose. The loss of students through open enrollment also costs local school districts a great deal of money.

The difference is that some people have a problem with state money paying for tuition at private schools, particularly religious schools.

The fact is that many of those schools provide students with excellent instruction. And the students are free to learn in environments that are not tainted by constant union labor conflicts or student violence.

Why do you think President Obama sends his daughters to a private school, rather than D.C. public schools? They are getting a better education.

All parents – not just the wealthy – should have the freedom to send their children to private or religious schools if they choose. That freedom should not be blocked by one powerful state senator, even if he is in charge of the Senate agenda.

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