Don’t let Howard Fuller off the train

Adam Emerson

Those who favor private learning options for poor children can count few champions for their cause more passionate than Howard Fuller, who is almost singularly responsible for the success of Milwaukee’s voucher program, the nation’s oldest. That’s why we should take seriously Fuller’s heartburn over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to remove the income restrictions to the voucher and open the Parental Choice Program to wealthier families.

If Walker is successful, Fuller told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel yesterday, “that’s when I get off the train,” and further called Walker’s proposal “egregious” and “outrageous” during testimony of Wisconsin’s legislative Joint Finance Committee.

The point Fuller is making is one that too often gets lost in the debate over education reform generally and vouchers specifically: Programs such as Milwaukee’s began with the sense that families of wealthier means already had options beyond the neighborhood public school, and that poor families might benefit from public policies that empowered them to find the best fit for their children. And that sense still pervades current means-tested efforts such as Florida’s tax credit scholarship and the pending measures in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Any movement in education reform is larger than one person, but let’s not dismiss the jaw-dropping implications of Fuller’s alarm. State legislatures may feel momentum toward greater school choice and choice advocates may be emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s move to legally insulate an Arizona tax credit scholarship, but Fuller would have us remember who needs our greatest help.

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Matthew Ladner April 13, 2011 - 7:25 pm

This is a fault line that has been rumbling in the parental choice movement back to the early debates of Friedman and Coons. Howard is a hero to the parental choice movement, and I certainly hope that reason and compromise will prevail.

Howard is within his rights to prefer to use parental choice as a method of equalizing equality of opportunity. It is also the case however that the public school system is subsidized by everyone and can be accessed by everyone.

Perhaps we should all be upset that the child of a billionaire can enroll in a Milwaukee public school and have the taxpayers subsidize his or her education to the tune of $13,000, however imperfectly. Let’s face it: we are not upset by this at all.

I therefore struggle to see why I should be upset if that same child of a billionaire receives a $6,440 voucher instead of a $13,000 public school education. Actually, it looks like a good deal to me.

I believe the solution is to make vouchers universally available, but to provide a much higher level fo subsidy for low-income children. Why not provide $15k for the poorest parents and $5k for the wealthiest? Let the wealthiest students generate the extra funds for the poorest. Taxpayers (let’s not forget them) might save some money as well. This would turn the lack of equity in the public school on its head, but would also preserve universality.

I hope that Coons, Friedman and Howard could all feel such a system to be a radical improvement over the status-quo.

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