The fight over removing all limits on the Parents’ Choice program, which lets K-12 students attend private schools with tax funds, symbolizes the Capitol debate over how well the next generation is learning, or not learning.

The Republican-controlled Assembly last week passed, 59-34, a bill removing family income and enrollment limits for students who get state-issued vouchers to attend private schools—a change the state Department of Public Instruction warned could raise property taxes outside Milwaukee by $577 million.

Republican senators are expected to also pass that change, inviting another veto by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former state superintendent of public instruction and Choice critic.

But the disparity in public comments over how well K-12 students are doing, in the middle of the pandemic mask on/mask off controversy, is striking.

“In 2018, Wisconsin’s schools were ranked 18th in the nation,” a statement from the governor’s re-election campaign declared last week.

“Fast forward to today, and under Gov. Tony Evers’ common sense leadership, Wisconsin’s education system has propelled forward 10 spots to eighth best in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report,” the Evers campaign added.

But those who want to remove limits on Choice say Wisconsin’s K-12 system has slipped so badly that all parents need the option of private schools, no matter their family income.

“It’s time for Wisconsin to reclaim its status as a national leader in education reform and empower parents by giving them more control over their children’s education,” Michael Brickman, of the conservative Institute for Reforming Government think tank, told legislators.

He added:

“Roughly two out of every three fourth graders in Wisconsin are not proficient in reading. Before the pandemic, which has only exacerbated the problem, 11% of African American students in Green Bay were proficient in English and 9.5% of African American students in Madison were proficient in English.

“Since 1992, Wisconsin is one of only six states to see a significant drop in reading test scores. Wisconsin ranks last in the country for reading proficiency for black students.”

No state education program has grown faster than Choice, which started with 300 low-income Milwaukee students in the 1990-91 school year. Republican legislators expanded it to Racine in the 2011-12 school year and statewide in 2013-14, subject to both family income and enrollment limits.

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau summary, more 44,500 students participated in Choice in the 2020-21 school year: 28,583 in Milwaukee, 3,835 in Racie and 12,111 in the statewide program. That total does not include special education students, which became eligible about seven years ago.

The Department of Public Instruction (DPI), in its analysis of the impact of the Assembly-passed bill, assumed that most students now attending private schools whose families are paying full tuition would enroll in the expanded Choice program, if it became law.

DPI estimated that removing enrollment and income limits could add more than 67,800 students statewide to Choice, more than doubling it in one year.

Because public school districts can raise property taxes to offset state aid lost for each student who transfers to a private school, those changes could raise property taxes by $577 million for districts outside Milwaukee and by $2 million in Milwaukee, DPI projected.

Assembly Democrats who voted against removing Choice limits seized on that number.

“This local property tax hike is over a half of a billion dollars a year [for] a competing school system that began 30 years ago as a little pilot program for our students in poverty,” said Democratic Rep. Sondy Pope.

Public school district administrators and school board members oppose expanding Choice.

But James Bender, a former Capitol aide now lobbying for School Choice Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that DPI made “an extravagant claim about huge influxes of students,” starting this fall.

DPI officials “know it’s false,” Bender added. “I know it’s false. They did it anyway to drive a political narrative.”

Private schools statewide “can’t afford” to admit significantly more Choice students until their tuition payments from state government are raised, Bender said. In the next school year, those payments will be $8,399 for kindergarten through eighth grade students and $9,045 for ninth through 12th grade students.

Choice has been dividing elected officials, parents and educators since the late-1980s. It still does.

Steven Walters starting covering state government in 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com