Policy Documents

Gov. Walker Signs Largest School Choice Expansion in Wisconsin History

Joy Pullmann –
June 27, 2011

The oldest voucher program in the nation will expand to two southern Wisconsin counties now that Gov. Scott Walker (R) has signed the state budget.

The budget includes a provision expanding the Milwaukee city voucher program to Milwaukee and Racine counties, to go into effect this fall. The Milwaukee program, currently capped at 22,500 students, will no longer have a cap, while the Racine program will be capped at 250 students in the first year, 500 in the second, and have no cap in the third and following years. Racine public schools have about 21,000 students.

“Wisconsin can once again be a national symbol of education excellence by empowering parents to make decisions regarding their children’s education through providing the opportunity to access quality public, private, and charter schools,” wrote Walker’s press secretary, Cullen Werwie, in a statement to School Reform News. “It is important that students and their achievements come before defending the educational status quo.”

Voucher recipients may take their education money to any school they wish. The vouchers will be worth up to $6,442 and available to families at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s an annual income of $66,150, an increase over the previous eligibility limit of $39,113 for the same family.

To receive a voucher, students must have spent the past two semesters in a Wisconsin public school or be entering kindergarten, first grade, or ninth grade.

The state spends about $9,000 per public-schooled pupil. Last year, the Milwaukee city vouchers program saved the state about $50 million.

Wild Budget Debates, Excited Community Response
The Wisconsin Assembly passed the budget 60-38 at 3 a.m. on June 16, and the next day the state Senate passed it 19-14. No Democrats voted for the bill--this legislative session has teemed with raucous disputes over Gov. Walker’s agenda including limits to collective bargaining and requiring state employees, including teachers, to pay 5.8 percent towards their pensions and 12 percent of healthcare benefits.

During negotiations, protestors chained themselves near the state capitol, bandied about pictures of Walker as Hitler and a “dead man,” and stood during committee meetings to shout over speakers until police hauled them away.

But, from voters in Racine and Milwaukee districts, state representatives’ offices have heard mostly positive feedback.

“That’s been in the media, but I haven’t taken any calls saying ‘I can’t believe you did this,’” said Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Rep. Robin Vos.(R-Rochester), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance. Vos represents part of Racine.

Beyer spoke away from the phone: “Did you take any calls like that?” she queried the office behind her.

“The calls our constituent relations person has taken has been positive,” Beyer continued, her mouth back by the receiver. “One woman was calling to thank us, saying her older child goes to a private school and she can’t wait to have that opportunity for her other children. We received a call today saying, ‘I want to write a letter to the editor because I’m so excited.’”

The response was the same over at Sen. Alberta Darling’s (R-River Hills) office. Darling’s district includes part of Milwaukee, and Darling, a former teacher, is chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We don’t hear too much about it,” said Spokesman Bob Delaporte. “People are used to the program and I haven’t heard too many complaints.”

Adjustments for Schools
The 20-year history of Milwaukee’s voucher program demonstrates that vouchers benefit taxpayers and public schools, School Choice Wisconsin President Susan Mitchell said.

“State and local taxpayers pay less for a student in the Milwaukee choice program than they do for a student in Milwaukee Public Schools. That same dynamic will be in Racine,” she said. “Graduation rates and test scores in Milwaukee have improved in the era of school choice and there’s no reason to say that won’t happen in Racine.”

The budget cuts $800 billion from K-12 education in a $66 billion budget aiming to close a $3.6 billion shortfall for the next two years.

“Districts in the state are able to absorb a considerable reduction in state aid because they took advantage of these [collective bargaining limits and worker pension and healthcare contribution] tools and avoided major layoffs,” Mitchell said. “Other districts that went into contracts before the budget was completed will have to make cuts or reopen contracts. The budget can has been kicked down the road for a decade and it can’t be avoided any longer without some more drastic consequences we’re seeing in other states. This was on a per capita basis one of the larger deficits in the country.”

Results for Families, Children
In Wisconsin, when a public school loses a student, that school still receives state funding for the child for the next two years. In the first year, the school loses a third of the child’s funding, two-thirds in the second year, and all in the third year. That, combined with the small test groups in the first two years for the Racine vouchers expansion, will likely make for an initially small impact on public schools, Delaporte said.

Despite losing 20 percent of its enrollment in the past decade, MPS’s budget is bigger than ever and the district is not cutting jobs, said Jay Greene, head of the Education Reform Department at the University of Arkansas. Greene has studied the Milwaukee vouchers program several times.

“A number of studies still find a positive competitive response despite these protections,” Greene said. “It’s just not miraculous positive signs. But we shouldn’t be shocked about that because [Milwaukee’s public schools] haven’t faced the kind of pressure that would necessitate a response.”

Students in the Milwaukee vouchers program are 18 percent more likely to graduate high school. Various studies on the program have shown small reading and mathematics gains for both Milwaukee choice and public school students as a result of the program. Seventy-one percent of Milwaukee parents approve of vouchers and 53 percent support offering them to all Milwaukee students.

Joy Pullmann (jpullmann@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News.