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Analysis: WI Taxpayers Fund Anti-LGBTQ Schools Through State Voucher Program

Some voucher schools allow the expulsion of students who simply support their LGBTQ peers, the analysis found.

An image of desks inside a vacant classroom.

A number of private schools in Wisconsin that receive public funding through the state’s school voucher programs discriminate against LGBTQ students and students with physical or mental disabilities, according to an analysis published earlier this month.

Wisconsin’s school voucher programs distribute taxpayer funds that would typically go to public school districts to students seeking to attend private (and sometimes religious) institutions.

The analysis, conducted by the nonprofit journalism organization Wisconsin Watch, based its findings on a sample of one-third of all private schools in the state that receive public funding through one of three voucher programs. Of the schools Wisconsin Watch examined, around half “appeared to discriminate against students who are LGBTQ+ or have disabilities, often citing religious principles or lack of capacity to accommodate certain conditions,” the organization reported.

Although these schools receive government funding, their private status allows school officials to punish students for things like “homosexual behavior” or simply voicing support for LGBTQ people, the report found. One school in the analysis also allows for students to be punished if their parents act in ways that are “contrary to the Bible.”

Voucher schools’ punishments for these supposed offenses are often cruel and humiliating, the Wisconsin Watch analysis found. The report, authored by investigative journalist Phoebe Petrovic, included a firsthand account of two former high schoolers who graduated from Fox Valley Lutheran High School last year. When the two were suspected by administrators of being in a lesbian relationship, the school’s dean of students required them to speak with a pastor and “break up” for the remainder of the year, claiming that he was going “easy on them” since they had good grades. The school also outed the students to their families.

Had the two students not complied with those conditions, the dean said, they could be expelled, just weeks before they were set to graduate.

Following that meeting, students at the high school wore tie-dye shirts in support of the couple. The next week, the two students were once again called in by administrators, including the school principal and the athletic director. The principal led at least one of the students in a prayer before telling them and their parents that they would be kicked out of extracurricular activities — including cheerleading and National Honors Society — for the remainder of their senior year, due to the public nature of their relationship and the subsequent action taken by their student allies.

Vouchers have been used in Wisconsin, in some form or another, since the early 1990s, when Milwaukee began implementing them for families in the state’s largest city. Proponents of vouchers have claimed that they are particularly beneficial for students whose families have lower incomes. But this argument is largely based on faulty research funded by right-wing groups; other studies have shown no significant difference in academic outcomes of students who received vouchers versus their peers who remained in public schools.

Meanwhile, voucher programs are harmful to students attending public schools because they allocate taxpayer money that would typically be distributed to public school districts to students attending private schools instead. What’s more, some voucher schools in the state have been documented falsely advertising themselves as bastions of academic excellence, only to shut down, sometimes in the middle of the school year, for failing to live up to their promises.

Wisconsin’s voucher programs allow students from families under certain income thresholds to receive state funding to attend any school they chose, including private religious schools. There are workarounds, however, that allow students whose families earn above the income thresholds to also utilize the programs, and critics have noted that most families enrolled in voucher programs had already enrolled their students in private schools prior to receiving stipends from the state.

Around $443 million is spent annually on voucher programs in Wisconsin, derived from taxpayers across the state who may or may not support the idea of their tax dollars being spent to subsidize religious schooling. Every dollar spent on voucher programs is a dollar that is removed from public schools where students utilizing the vouchers reside.

In Appleton, Wisconsin, one of the communities where students of Fox Valley Lutheran schools reside, public schools lost more than $5.6 million in aid due to voucher programs.

Voucher programs also had a detrimental effect on rural areas. The Freedom, Wisconsin, school district — where a number of Fox Valley Lutheran students also live — lost close to $600,000 in funding last year, more than $380 per student. More than 10 percent of the funding that was lost would have gone toward students with special needs in the district.

Officials within Wisconsin’s executive branch of government, including Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former educator, are largely unable to implement changes to the voucher system due to statutes on vouchers in legislation signed by his Republican predecessor, former Gov. Scott Walker. It’s highly unlikely that the GOP-controlled state legislature will advance any bill that would update standards.

“It’s unfortunate. We want children to be included, welcomed, and safe in all schools, especially those that receive public funding,” Abigail Swetz, Department of Public Instruction communications director, told Wisconsin Watch. “It is what we expect as good stewards of public dollars and as educators who value all children.”

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