Doyle Takes Aim at Milwaukee Schoolchildren

Published September 1, 2009

The nation’s oldest and largest school voucher program faces severe financial cuts and a bevy of new regulations in the wake of the passage of Wisconsin’s state budget.

Under 2009 Wisconsin Act 28, significant changes will be made to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Gov. Jim Doyle (D) introduced a host of new requirements for private schools participating in MPCP, thus bypassing the public review those requirements would have undergone if introduced in a standalone bill. His plan cut the program’s budget by 2.5 percent and subjects participating schools to additional regulations that will take resources away from classroom instruction.

Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a Wisconsin-based think tank, called the bill a “secretly crafted, ill-conceived document” and predicted it means “you will see fewer schools in the choice program and, therefore, [fewer] options for parents.”

Unequal Treatment

MPCP’s per-pupil funding will stay at roughly $6,442 a year, compared to the approximately $13,800 in per-pupil funding Milwaukee Public Schools receives, Healy said.

And that’s not all. Some insiders say new private schools joining the program weren’t given enough time to comply with all the new regulations.

Private schools seeking to join the MPCP were ordered “to submit an extensive education plan … that only allowed schools about three weeks to prepare the plan. Nineteen schools submitted. Sixteen schools were denied access to the MPCP due to this most hastily thought-out process,” noted Dr. Jerry Fair, president of an educational consulting firm working with private schools in the city.

“There was no due process or appeal process set up for schools to be heard once they received a communication … informing them that their Ed Plan was not acceptable,” Fair added. “Schools were not even allowed an opportunity to discuss the plan with officials in hopes of making alterations. Is someone trying to kill the choice program in Milwaukee?”

‘Unprecedented Intrusion’

Doyle initially proposed applying Chapter 19 of the Wisconsin State Statutes—an open records/open meetings requirement for government entities—to private schools in the MPCP, as well as requiring them to provide all financial and other information, dating back as far as five years, to anyone requesting it.

In the final version of the budget, those requirements were changed from what the governor had proposed. MPCP schools will be required to schedule two annual meetings at which members of the schools’ governing bodies will be present, as well as parents, guardians, and pupils—”still an unprecedented intrusion into the affairs of private institutions,” Healy said.

‘Bureaucratic Morass’

“Such excessive regulation has not improved public schools, and it won’t improve private schools either,” Bob Smith, president of Milwaukee’s Messmer Schools, said in a June 2 press release issued by the Institute for Justice. McKinsey & Co. researchers agreed, finding “academic challenges facing the district cannot be understated. Student performance [in the public schools] has not improved and, in many cases, has worsened over the past five years.”

Though the new budget requires voucher schools to administer Wisconsin’s third-grade reading test, Healy said the Milwaukee Department of Public Instruction (DPI) does not require this of public schools. In fact, the test might not even exist. DPI officials could not be reached for comment.

As a result of this new legislation, “all schools will be required to take money away from children and classrooms to pay for new reporting requirements and bureaucratic red tape,” Healy said. “And opponents of the voucher movement will try to replicate this bureaucratic morass anywhere there is any form of educational freedom.”

Danger in Federal Money

Though MPS budgets were cut by 1 percent, the district is expected to receive more than $100 million in federal stimulus funds over the next two years, according to a recent report from McKinsey & Co, a global management consulting firm commissioned by Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to review MPS’s management practices and academic outcomes.

“These new funds will provide an unparalleled opportunity to invest in reforms that improve student achievement, and may help to temporarily alleviate some of MPS’s budget pressures,” the McKinsey authors wrote. “However, these funds are temporary and must be invested carefully and strategically. If careful planning and caution are not used when allocating these recovery funds, the district’s financial shortfall will be much worse in two years when the funds are scheduled to expire.”

Dr. Andrew Neumann, president of HOPE Christian Schools in Milwaukee, said in a June 2 press release from the Institute for Justice, “I can understand that our economy is requiring drastic measures to make budgets balance these days. 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.”

Corrina Jennings ([email protected]) writes from San Jose, California.

For more information …

“Toward a Stronger Milwaukee Public Schools,” McKinsey & Co., April 2009: