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Senator Ron Johnson: Get the Facts on School Choice

Well before becoming a U.S. Senator, I was involved as a volunteer in improving both the private and public education systems in Oshkosh. First as a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Lourdes High School, then as Chairmen of its Building Expansion Committee, and finally as a member of the Oshkosh Chamber’s Partners in Education (PIE) Council.

At Lourdes, I championed the Academic Excellence Initiative (AEI) and its mission: “How to teach more, better, easier”. Part of AEI included a capstone class on basic life skills, like financial literacy, that Oshkosh employers noted was missing and sorely needed by graduating seniors. As a member of the Chamber’s PIE Council, I helped convince the Oshkosh School System to require a financial literacy course for graduation – the first school system in the state of Wisconsin to do so. The fact that the private high school had already implemented its life skills class helped prompt the public school system to follow suit.

This experience buttressed my belief that competition within our education system would help improve both systems. This is one of many reasons why I am a strong believer in school choice.

If you stop to think of two large sectors in our economy that the public is perpetually dissatisfied with, healthcare and education, you quickly realize that the problems within both sectors have a common root cause – the benefits of free market competition have been largely driven out of each. Having competed against excellence in the private sector for over thirty years, I am well aware of those benefits – the lowest possible price, and the highest possible level of quality and customer service.

The benefits of market competition have been driven out of the healthcare system by our transition over decades to a third-party payer system where today only 10% of healthcare products and services are paid for directly by the patient.

In education, the virtual monopoly of public K-12 education, combined with the power of teacher unions, has drastically curtailed private-sector competition. Add the influence government experts through the strings it attaches to funding of both K-12 and higher education, and you get a good sense of the power stacked against competition.

The solution in education is school choice. Unfortunately, teacher unions and government have been successful at protecting their turf and limiting the number of students eligible. I strongly believe that if we allowed school funding to follow students to whichever school they and their parents chose is best for them, we would all be amazed at how quickly education would improve and the cost of education would stabilize and maybe even decline.

As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, my committee had jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, and as a result, I was able to offer more than lip service and moral support to school choice efforts. Because teacher unions exert great influence over Democrat politicians, the Obama administration was hostile to school choice, so school choice programs in Wisconsin and D.C. needed to be defended – and I did so.

In the summer of 2015, I sent letters to the Department of Justice and held a field hearing at St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee inquiring into DOJ’s 2011 investigation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. I was concerned that DOJ’s investigation appeared to be fueled by the Administration’s opposition to school choice programs, not by any wrongdoing in the Wisconsin program. One of my letters stated, “I find it especially troubling that these actions by the Administration and the DOJ may only create further harm to those students and their families who seek to escape the cycle of poverty through improved educational opportunities afforded by school choice programs like those in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia.”

Later that year I co-sponsored the SOAR Reauthorization Act of 2015 to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DC OSP) and helped defeat President Obama’s budget request to wind down DC OSP, ensuring FY2016 appropriations included $15 million to continue the program. In December 2015, following my oversight efforts, the DOJ informed Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that its investigation was closed.

In May 2017, I fought to include the SOAR Reauthorization Act in the FY2017 appropriations bill, improving DC OSP and ensuring adequate funding for the program through FY2019. In 2019, I introduced the SOAR Reauthorization Act of 2019 and held a field hearing at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Washington, D.C. to discuss the success of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and the need for its permanent authorization.

Later that year, I introduced the SOAR Permanent Authorization Act of 2019 and protected the program from a future and potentially hostile Democrat administration by getting an extension of the program through FY2023 included in the FY2020 omnibus. In January 2021, I introduced the SOAR Permanent Authorization Act of 2021.

As you can see, my support for School Choice has been longstanding and consistently strong. It is driven by my belief that all children deserve a good education, and no child should be trapped inside a failing school. Without a good education, individuals will be less able to take full advantage of the opportunities America offers.

Unfortunately, liberals pay lip service to providing a good education for all while at the same time tying themselves to the dictates and demands of the teacher unions. Liberals also pay lip service to oppose “dark money” in political campaigns. Notably, they are silent as millions in “dark money” has been spent on false attack ads and engaging in the politics of personal destruction against me.

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