Fact check: No, Joe Biden can't ban school choice in Wisconsin, though he opposes vouchers

Eric Litke
USA TODAY

The claim: Joe Biden supports a school choice ban that would impact 74,000 Wisconsin students.

Should tax dollars be used to fund private school tuition?

In Wisconsin, this is done through a system commonly referred to as vouchers or school choice, where parents apply money the state would have given a public school for their child toward tuition at approved private schools.

Supporters say parents are providing the education funds through tax dollars, so it’s only fair for the funding to follow their child to another school. Critics say it’s not right to use public funds to support what are in many cases religious institutions, and that vouchers bleed needed support from public schools.

The system is one of many dividing lines in the 2020 presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

One website “analysis” shared widely on Facebook claimed Biden’s stance would have sweeping consequences in Wisconsin. The Aug. 11 article from Milwaukee City Wire used this headline: “Analysis: Biden school choice ban would impact 74,000 Wisconsin students, 35,000 in Milwaukee.”

Let’s separate fact from fiction.

The source of the claim

The article was published by one of many purported local news sites run by Metric Media Publications.

The company boasts 24 web pages with a Wisconsin brand under names like “Central Wisconsin News,” “Green Bay Reporter” and “The Sconi.” It also includes the “Fon du Lac News,” where the city name of Fond du Lac is misspelled in both the web address and the banner atop each page.

The Metric Media Foundation, the official name of the nonprofit entity, says on its website it runs more than 1,000 such websites around the country.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported the network relies heavily on algorithmically generated stories and can be traced to conservative businessman Brian Timpone. His former company, Journatic, drew outrage in 2012 for plagiarism, fake bylines and fake quotes in what was dubbed “pink slime journalism.”

For this particular story what is labeled an “analysis” is actually just a regurgitation of a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spreadsheet, which the story’s unnamed author misunderstood.

Now, on to the claim.

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Biden’s position on school choice

The fundamental assertion here is that Biden wants to ban school choice.

That’s not a new claim. And it’s not exactly accurate. PolitiFact rated Mostly False a Trump claim that Biden “wants to end school choice.” 

The key question is what “school choice” means.

EdChoice, an advocacy group that says it aims "to advance educational freedom and choice," says that term can include private school vouchers as well as charter schools and specialized “magnet” schools that, for instance, may focus on math and science or the arts.

In Wisconsin, the term school choice is often used as shorthand for the three voucher programs (Milwaukee, Racine and statewide), but it could also refer to an array of nontraditional schooling options such as charter schools, virtual schools and the open enrollment program, where a student can enroll in a public school outside his or her district.

Biden’s campaign, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this piece, told PolitiFact that Biden “does not oppose districts letting parents choose to send their children to public magnet schools, high-performing public charters or traditional public schools."

But Biden is against sending public money to private K-12 schools through voucher programs, something supported by Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

Presidential candidate Joe Biden signs documents for receiving the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination at the Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington, Deleware on Aug. 14, 2020.

No, Biden can’t ‘ban’ vouchers

Regardless of Biden’s preference, however, he wouldn’t have the power if elected to simply halt voucher programs — in Wisconsin or anywhere else.

“Parental choice programs in Wisconsin are state authorized and funded,” said state DPI spokesman Chris Bucher. “They are not subject to federal control.”

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, agreed, noting Biden would have “very limited power to impact school choice,” just as Trump and DeVos now “are pretty limited” in their ability to pursue their desired expansion of school choice.

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it is possible Biden could create hurdles for school vouchers, though — particularly if Democrats win control of both chambers of Congress in November.

“Certainly on the face of it, (a ban) does not seem to be an immediately credible threat,” Hess said. “But one can spin scenarios if one works hard enough.”

Since about 10% of school spending comes from Washington (primarily for special education and low-income students), a Democratic Congress could write legislation or dole out that aid in a way that hinders voucher funding, Hess said. Or the Justice Department could mount lawsuits that would impede vouchers.

The DOJ involvement isn’t exactly far-fetched given the agency (unsuccessfully) sued the Louisiana school choice program in 2013, under President Barack Obama, asserting the program "frustrates and impedes the desegregation process." 

But these hypotheticals are a far cry from the suggestion in this story that Biden can implement a ban.

Numbers cited for voucher program are wrong

All of which brings us to the last part of the claim: That a ban would impact 74,000 Wisconsin students. The text of the article referred to these as the tallies for the 2018-19 school year. 

But the stats are badly botched on multiple fronts.

The number comes from a DPI report summarizing the voucher program, but it’s from 2019-20, not the preceding year.

And the actual number of students in the voucher program was 42,157. The number cited in the headline is the total number of students attending voucher schools — many of whom paid their own way and did not use taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Our ruling: False

We rate this claim FALSE, based on our research. Biden does oppose one stripe of school choice programs: those that apply public tax dollars to parents’ private school tuition bills. But everything else in this claim is wrong. The term “school choice” also covers an array of other programs that Biden supports. And the voucher program in Wisconsin includes is about 42,000 students, not 74,000.

But most notably, the assertion that Biden has the power to “ban” such voucher programs simply doesn’t hold water. A president and Congress that opposed vouchers could put some hurdles in place, but the Wisconsin program is authorized and funded by the state.

Our fact-check sources:

Contact Eric Litke at (414) 225-5061 or elitke@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ericlitke.

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