Wisconsin is home to one of the nation’s oldest school choice programs. Since starting in Milwaukee in 1990, the program has offered tens of thousands of students the opportunity to escape from schools that are not working for them. The program has since expanded to offer opportunities to students across the state. But now, the educational lifeline for more than 50,000 students from low-income families hangs in the balance. A political action committee created by Wisconsin-based Minocqua Brewing Company has announced that they plan to file a lawsuit in an effort to end school choice in the state.
Seemingly emboldened by a perceived new direction of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, special interests like the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC are launching an effort to rip quality education options from tens of thousands of Wisconsin families. The owner of the Minocqua Brewing Company is a longtime opponent of school choice. The prospect of a wealthy, Harvard-educated rural craft brewer ripping away educational options from primarily low-income minority students in Milwaukee ought to be beyond the pale even for the political left, but they have largely remained silent on this topic.
Education freedom should not be a political issue. Legislators in Wisconsin recently came together here in Wisconsin to pass historic funding for students in choice and charter schools, and a significant majority of Wisconsinites support the program. In the 1990s, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a variety of legal challenges to the school choice program. Since then, the United States Supreme Court has made clear that a choice program not only may include religious schools but must include them.
The lawsuit claims that private choice schools are undermining public schools and inappropriately siphoning taxpayer funds to the program. But school choice programs have already withstood numerous legal challenges, and those rulings have been key to what has become a national expansion of the school choice movement. School choice programs have been found to be constitutional at the state and federal level, their popularity only continues to grow, and they allow quality schools to educate thousands of children who otherwise might not be able to afford to attend anything other than public schools that have failed them.
It is important to highlight what would be lost were this PAC to succeed in their case. Research over the years has identified many benefits from Wisconsin’s school choice programs. Research in the 2000s found that students in Milwaukee who attended schools in the choice program did better academically than a matched set of students who stayed in their zone public school. More recently, research that I conducted has found that the expansion of the program outside of Milwaukee has led to similar academic benefits, all without harming outcomes for public school students.
But even more so than the academic benefits, there are the more intangible benefits that come from attending schools with greater freedom to instill moral values in their students. Students in choice schools have been found to have greater civic virtue and are less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. All of this is at risk if this lawsuit succeeds. Given the dramatic negative consequences, it is easy to see Brewery owner Kirk Bangstad as a modern-day George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent low-income families from having educational options.
In the era of parental empowerment, it is disheartening to think that one of the first beacons of hope for countless families seeking a brighter future for their children may be snuffed out. But rest assured, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty will defend school choice as strongly as possible on both the legal and policy fronts. Despite the legal hurdles ahead, we must stand steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that school choice remains a viable and accessible option. By doing so, we not only uphold the principles of freedom and choice but also provide a pathway to educational excellence that can transform lives and strengthen our communities.
Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty