Thursday, September 1, 2011

Supply and Demand in Wisconsin

Back in the late spring, as lawmakers in Wisconsin were determining the extent and scope of a proposed expansion of vouchers in the state budget, we joined with our friends at School Choice Wisconsin to do what is sadly becoming something of a novel approach in politics, despite the fact that it should be standard procedure.

We asked the people what they thought.

While opponents to school choice made claims about why expansion wouldn't be good for the community, they never thought (or decided not) to ask citizens their opinion. But we did, and what we heard wasn't surprising.

Our poll showed that majorities in both Racine and Green Bay supported expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to their cities, with the proposal earning strong support across ideological lines. And among parents with children who would stand to benefit from school choice, almost two-thirds supported expansion.

So it was curious to us when the final measure included in the budget failed to expand choice to Green Bay and placed an arbitrary 250-student cap on first-year enrollment the Racine program.

Fast forward three months, and you can now see why we were scratching our heads.
Multiple news outlets are reporting that the Racine program has received more than 250 applications, meaning that in all likelihood, students will be turned away for this school year. This comes after a limited amount of time to promote the new program and the lack of established precedent for parents to follow.

With even more promotion and the likely positive word of mouth to come from the parents and students who will enroll in the program this year, we worry that we could find ourselves in an even more precarious position next fall. In 2012, there will likely be significantly more applicants trying to squeeze in under the program's 500-student cap (by the third year, thankfully, there will be no cap).

The sad thing is that this situation could have been avoided. The low first- and second-year caps (as well as the omission of Green Bay from voucher expansion) were part of a compromise that allowed for the much larger and more significant Milwaukee expansion

Problem is, the compromise wasn't what the people wanted—and now we know why. They were telling the truth when they said they wanted more options in order to maximize their children's potential. They weren't lying when they said that they saw the success of the program in Milwaukee and wanted it in their cities.

And, especially in politically-charged Wisconsin, more note should have been taken of this issue's remarkable ability to unite Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. When the citizenry's wishes cross ideological and party lines, politicians need to listen.

"Hindsight is 20/20," the old adage goes. But there were many who saw the problems with a 250-student cap, and they expressed their reservations.

Next time, we hope the legislature is listening.

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MAG

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