Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Improves Education & Saves Money—But Can It Survive the Latest Political Attack?

John Kramer
John Kramer · June 2, 2009

Milwaukee, Wis.—The nation’s largest and most successful urban school choice program is in jeopardy.

For 20 years, Milwaukee’s program has provided thousands of mostly minority students from low-income families with educational opportunity.  With 20,000 students in 125 private schools, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) produces higher graduation rates, saves Wisconsin taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, and improves public school results.

On the merits, such a successful program should be expanded.

Instead, opponents seek to suffocate Milwaukee’s choice program with financial cuts and a barrage of red tape cloaked in the guise of “accountability.”  Their strategy will mean a slow but certain death.

On May 29, 2009, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved proposals by Governor Jim Doyle and added amendments of its own that could discourage successful schools from participating in the program and burden schools that currently participate with a regimen of expensive new regulations favored by school choice opponents.  The budget committee also reduced the already limited financial support for choice students, meaning that schools will need to not only shift scarce resources from the classroom to administrative paperwork but make education program cuts as well.  Now that the finance committee has approved the regulations, the full Legislature will vote on them before they go to Gov. Doyle’s desk for signing.

“Such excessive regulation has not improved public schools and it won’t improve private schools either,” said Brother Bob Smith, president of the highly regarded Messmer Schools, which include a high school and three elementary schools that enroll 1,450 students.  “This is just a thinly disguised effort to crush school choice in Milwaukee and to take away highly valued educational opportunities from the students who need them most.”

The threat to the Milwaukee choice program is real.  For the first time in 20 years, school choice opponents control the legislative and executive branches in Wisconsin; they have moved swiftly to advance an agenda long sought by their union allies.  The assault on the Milwaukee program follows an apparent victory for congressional school choice opponents, who have taken aim at the Washington D.C. scholarship program that allows 1,700 low-income students to attend private schools with scholarships of up to $7,500.  Notably, the U.S. Department of Education released positive research findings on the D.C. program only after Congress voted to end it.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Choice opponents have taken a different tack in Milwaukee, proposing severe financial limits and heavy regulation.  Gov. Doyle included the proposals in his 1,657-page budget bill, thus bypassing the substantial public review and input that are part of consideration of a separate piece of legislation.

The new legislation would:

•    Cut per-pupil payments to schools while increasing mandated costs.  Choice students already receive far less funding than public school students in Milwaukee.  This year, public support for choice students is $6,607 per pupil, less than half of the $13,468 for students in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

The Joint Finance Committee cut choice payments by $165 per pupil compared to providing increases of at least $400 for public school students.  “I can understand that our economy is requiring drastic measures to make budgets balance these days,” said Dr. Andrew Neumann, president of HOPE Christian Schools.  “It will, however, be extremely difficult for me to explain to our teachers and families why, after their incredibly hard work and great performance this year, we have to reduce our budgets by more than $100,000 while others are getting a raise.”

•    Impose redundant regulation.  Private schools in the program already must attain accreditation within three years of entry.  Now they will face new state mandates that duplicate many requirements already covered by accrediting agencies such as academic standards, staff credentials and student record keeping.  “This archaic approach to regulation will result in more rules, more auditing and more costs but no more quality,” says Smith, whose high school has been accredited by four organizations.

•    Require schools serving even a small proportion of students with limited English skills to provide a bilingual and bicultural program.  Most private schools in the program with such students do not offer a bilingual program because such an approach is widely regarded as the most protracted and costly method of English language acquisition.  “Parents choose our school because we do not have a bilingual program,” said Terry Brown, president of St. Anthony’s Elementary School, an award-winning school that serves more than 1,000 Hispanic students.  “We teach the children English right away and have them reading in English at the end of kindergarten.  Parents want their children to acquire English in two years, not the four to seven years typical of a bilingual program.”

Brown said imposition of state requirements of bilingual education on schools like his would have a potentially fatal fiscal impact.

“These proposals are far more likely to hurt successful schools than to improve the quality of schools in the program,” said Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin.  “If these provisions are enacted, Milwaukee will take a step backwards.”

School Choice Works

Milwaukee’s school choice program has grown from 341 students at seven private schools in 1990 to more than 20,000 students (about one quarter of enrollment in traditional Milwaukee public schools) at 125 schools.  High-quality statistical research has documented that the Milwaukee choice program:

•    Saves taxpayers money.  Wisconsin taxpayers will save more than $37 million in 2008-09 alone.  According to the respected journal Education Next, the program saved taxpayers more than $180 million from 1994 through 2008.

•    Achieves higher graduation rates.  Three studies by national experts documented that students in the Milwaukee choice program graduate high school at higher rates than students in Milwaukee’s public schools.  Most recently, University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren found in 2007 that Milwaukee choice students’ graduation rate was 85 percent compared to 58 percent for students in Milwaukee’s public schools.

•    Improves public schools.  Four studies employing cutting-edge statistical models found that students in Milwaukee Public Schools experience academic achievement gains because of competition from the choice program.  Most recently, Jay Greene and Ryan Marsh, researchers with the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, found public school test score gains of 12 percent because of the competition choice creates in Milwaukee.

•    Achieves gains for voucher students.  Three studies, including two conducted prior to the religious school expansion in 1998, found test score gains for some pupils in the Milwaukee program.  Most recently, the 2009 evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project found statistically significant academic gains for choice students in 7th and 8th grade math.  This evidence of academic success echoes the findings of eight gold-standard research studies of choice programs in other communities that found statistically significant test score gains.

Real Accountability

School choice supporters, including Messmer’s Brother Bob Smith, St. Anthony’s Terry Brown, and Susan Mitchell from School Choice Wisconsin, have worked with legislators in past sessions to address underperforming schools.  Legislation they helped develop passed with bipartisan support and was signed by Governor Doyle in 2004 and 2006.  As a result, the state removed 30 schools from the program and denied the applications of 111 schools that sought to join the Milwaukee choice program.  Further, 44 schools still need to meet the accreditation requirement included in the 2006 legislation; several are unlikely to do so and will not be allowed to participate.

“The unambiguous track record is one of higher quality,” said Mitchell.  “Underperforming schools are systematically being eliminated from the choice program, a pattern unheard of in public education.  New mandates and more paperwork reflect an old model that doesn’t work.”