GOP seeks to expand school voucher program
MATTHEW DeFOUR | email@example.com | 608-252-6144 madison.com | (221) Comments | Posted: Saturday, March 26, 2011
By the numbers: Milwaukee school vouchers
Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislators want to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which gives low-income students public money to attend private schools.
$38,587 — Maximum income level for a family of four (175 percent of the federal poverty level) eligible to receive a Milwaukee voucher for their students.
$71,662 — Maximum income level for a family of four (325 percent of the poverty level) eligible to receive a voucher and not pay partial tuition, under Walker’s proposal. Voucher supporters say an approach that allows wealthy families to receive any subsidy for private school is unacceptable.
1990 — The year the program — the oldest modern voucher program in the country — began, with 337 students.
1995 — The year the Legislature expanded the program to include religious schools.
1998 — The year the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld voucher programs, ending years of legal challenges.
2002 — The year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that voucher students can attend religious schools if certain criteria are met.
$6,442 — Maximum amount of state aid available to a student eligible for a voucher, though the actual amount may be less and is based on the private school’s cost to educate a student.
$14,183 — Cost per student in the Milwaukee Public Schools, which is higher than voucher schools partly because they serve more students with disabilities and administrative costs are higher.
20,996 — Number of Milwaukee students from 4-year-old kindergarten through 12th grade enrolled in 102 private schools using public funding. If the voucher program were a school district, it would be Wisconsin’s fifth-largest.
22,500 — The program’s enrollment cap, which Walker has proposed removing.
$130.8 million — Estimated state aid for the Milwaukee voucher program this year. Another $50 million comes from Milwaukee taxpayers.
A Republican Assembly leader plans to add to the state budget bill an expansion of Milwaukee’s voucher program to other school districts, potentially giving more families in cities such as Madison access to private and religious schools.
Voucher advocates say the time is ripe to expand the program to other cities, especially with Republicans in control of state government and a recent study suggesting students in the 20-year-old Milwaukee program are testing as well or better than their public school counterparts, with a lower cost per pupil.
They also argue that vouchers would level the playing field for private schools, which have seen enrollment decline as public charter schools have gained popularity.
But voucher opponents say expansion would further cripple public schools, which already face an $834 million cut in state funding over the next two years.
And state test scores to be released Tuesday, which for the first time include 10,600 Milwaukee voucher students, could suggest they are testing no better than poor students in the Milwaukee Public Schools.
“Given the proposed unprecedented cuts to public education as well as results from our statewide assessments, I question plans in the 2011-13 state budget for expanding the choice program in Milwaukee or anywhere else in Wisconsin,” State Superintendent Tony Evers said.
Currently only low-income students in Milwaukee Public Schools are eligible to receive up to about $6,500 in public money to attend private schools. Gov. Scott Walker’s budget calls for lifting income eligibility limits and enrollment caps, and allowing Milwaukee students to attend private schools anywhere in Milwaukee County.
Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, said he wants to expand vouchers to cities such as Racine, Green Bay and Madison because “too many kids are being left behind and are literally being cast off the island.”
“The parents who are inside (Racine’s) school system are realizing that the hope they have that their own system will improve is usually misplaced,” Vos said.
Vos proposed expanding the voucher program to Racine as part of the 2007 state budget, but gave up on the proposal as part of a compromise between the then-Republican-controlled Assembly and Democratic-controlled Senate.
This time Vos said he expects to introduce a more comprehensive proposal that would allow voucher programs in multiple cities. Specific details aren’t finalized, but Vos said it could allow parents in school districts with the right environment for a voucher program — such as enough private schools — to petition the state for a program.
“There has to be community input,” Vos said. “I don’t want to impose something where there’s no hope for success. But I don’t want the status quo to be the driver of reform.”
‘Hasn’t hit the radar in Madison’
It remains to be seen which communities would welcome vouchers, which in many parts of the state are viewed as unique to Milwaukee. Grassroots support from parents has developed in Racine and Green Bay, which may be the first places where the program expands, Vos said.
Vos also said Madison would be an ideal candidate for a voucher program. Dane County has 32 private schools, compared with 23 in Racine County and 31 in Brown County.
The Madison School District’s low-income population has grown considerably in the last decade, surpassing 50 percent for the first time this year. An increasing number of families are enrolling their students in neighboring districts. And though the district’s schools are considered high-performing, concerns about the success rate of minorities have prompted the Urban League to press for a charter school geared toward closing the achievement gap.
But unlike Milwaukee, political support for vouchers is nonexistent here.
Urban League President Kaleem Caire said he told Walker’s education policy advisers last fall that his organization would not support vouchers in Madison.
“Our position has not changed,” Caire said. “We believe public charter schools are the best avenue to provide quality school options for children and families in greater Madison.”
Even Michael Lancaster, superintendent of the Madison Catholic Diocese Schools, said the voucher issue “really hasn’t hit the radar in Madison.”
“I’m not sure that anybody was seriously talking about voucher program expansion until recently and the last elections,” Lancaster said. “Madison doesn’t have the same issues as Milwaukee.”
Charter, public, private
The proposal to expand vouchers in Wisconsin comes at a time when the national debate on reforming public schools has shifted away from vouchers toward charter schools, said Marisa Cannata, associate director of the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University. Charter schools tend to have more flexibility to employ alternative methods than traditional public schools but with more accountability than private schools.
The political calculus also has made charter schools more appealing, as Democrats and teacher unions have softened their opposition to charter schools. Their opposition to vouchers remains fierce.
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, said expanding vouchers and avenues for independent charter schools while cutting public education is all part of a Republican attempt “to privatize what has been a very successful and very stable public education system in Wisconsin.”
“We know we have issues where we need to do better,” Bell said. “But in most schools in Wisconsin, the investment we have made as a state benefits communities and the economy.”
Still, private school advocates see vouchers as a remedy to years of declining enrollment in the face of increased interest in public charter schools.
“A charter school is a public school that markets itself as a private school,” said Matt Kussow, executive director of the Wisconsin Council for Religious and Independent Schools. “That’s really changed the debate about vouchers.”
Since 2000, private school enrollment in Wisconsin has declined 16 percent, while public charter school enrollment has multiplied sixfold.
“There is good reason to think that those are connected,” said Patrick Wolf, a researcher at the University of Arkansas, which the state commissioned to conduct a five-year study on the results of the Milwaukee voucher program.
“There are people in the Catholic schools area who are very concerned about the ability of Catholic schools to survive in the new environment, absent the voucher schools. Because they’re competing against free goods.”
The Arkansas study, which is following a sampling of comparable voucher students and Milwaukee Public Schools students over time, has found a neutral to positive effect on the test scores of voucher students, Wolf said. The research also suggests the competition has improved the performance of traditional Milwaukee Public Schools.
The state’s Legislative Audit Bureau has questioned the study because 60 percent of voucher students returned to public schools, private schools administered different tests than public schools and individual school data was unavailable.
In response, the state required voucher students to take the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination for the first time last fall. Walker’s proposal would repeal that requirement.