Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) on March 10 signed legislation expanding Milwaukee’s innovative school voucher program, averting what some education reformers had termed a “looming crisis” that jeopardized the education gains low-income students have enjoyed under the 16-year-old program.
Doyle, a Democrat, reached a compromise with the state legislature to raise the cap on the total number of students eligible to receive vouchers from approximately 14,500 to 22,500 students. The bill included new accountability measures for schools educating voucher students, as well as increased funding for smaller class sizes in Wisconsin’s government schools.
In a March 10 statement, Doyle called the bill a “victory for schools, not just in Milwaukee, but all across the state.” The bill was passed largely along party lines in both the General Assembly and the Senate, with most Republicans voting for the bill and most Democrats voting against it. The Democrats who supported the bill mostly represented Milwaukee districts, where many low-income students use vouchers to attend private schools.
“This is a wonderful victory for Milwaukee families after three-and-a-half years of struggle,” said Susan Mitchell, executive director of School Choice Wisconsin, a grassroots organization that advocates giving parents and students choices in education, referring to the nearly three-and-a-half years she and other advocates for parental choice in education have spent trying to lift the cap.
Students’ Choice Jeopardized
Mitchell also praised the law for repealing a requirement that students must already be enrolled in the Milwaukee public school system before becoming eligible to receive vouchers. Now, all low-income students are eligible, including those who have just moved to Milwaukee. The law also includes provisions allowing students to keep their vouchers even if their family’s income rises above the program’s income limits.
When Milwaukee first introduced vouchers, the number of students who could receive them was capped at 15 percent of total enrollment in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). For the 2006-07 school year, the cap was estimated by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to be approximately 14,500 students, while an expected 14,750 students would be eligible to receive vouchers.
Without an increase in the cap, vouchers would have been rationed, potentially forcing some students currently using vouchers to lose them (see “Milwaukee Begins to Ration School Choice,” School Reform News, February 2006). Other students could have been required to change schools.
State Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) estimated that as many as 4,000 students could have been displaced if rationing had been implemented.
“It would have been chaos, not just for students with vouchers but also for students in Milwaukee’s public schools,” Vukmir said.
Vouchers Popular, Improve Education
Over the past two years, the legislature passed three bills raising the cap to ensure voucher students wouldn’t be forced to leave their schools. Doyle vetoed each of those bills, citing his concern that raising the cap would take money away from public schools. The legislature and Doyle were able to reach a compromise in late February by combining increased funding for public schools, an increase in the voucher cap, and new accreditation and testing requirements. (See “Voucher Cap Is Lifted in Milwaukee,” School Reform News, March 2006.)
Officially known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), vouchers are a popular education reform in Wisconsin. Statewide, 62 percent of residents support the program, according to a 2001 survey by Harris Interactive. Among African-Americans, support is even higher, with 75 percent supporting school choice.
Considerable research has shown the vouchers not only improve education for students who use them to attend private schools, but also improve achievement levels for students who remain in public schools.
Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard University professor of economics and leading researcher on the impact of school choice programs, found in a 2001 study that public schools in Milwaukee facing the greatest competition from vouchers improved student achievement more than schools facing less competition. A similar study by Hoxby in 2003, using more current data, also showed competition from vouchers improved student achievement in public schools.
Another researcher, Jay Greene of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, found in a 2005 study that the graduation rate for voucher students was 64 percent, compared to only 36 percent in Milwaukee’s public schools. Greene had found in 1996 that voucher students achieved results similar to those of public school students during their first two years in private schools, but after three years voucher students generally outperformed their public school counterparts.
Vukmir said she’s seen those results firsthand in Milwaukee.
“The voucher program has caused dramatic improvement in the public schools,” Vukmir explained. “As a result of choice and competition, there are more opportunities for students.” The public schools have created charter schools, magnet schools, and specialty schools in response to the competition, Vukmir said.
Teacher Unions Opposed Choice
Teacher unions in Wisconsin lobbied against lifting the cap. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the largest teacher union in the state, claimed raising the cap would deprive Milwaukee’s government schools of needed funds and raise property taxes.
Noting that what he termed the “vast majority” of students in Milwaukee remain in government schools, WEAC President Stan Johnson said in a February 17 statement, “this proposal will hurt that vast majority by taking money out of their schools and putting it into voucher schools.”
That charge was disputed by Rep. John Gard (R-Peshtigo), speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly.
“That is just a tired response of ‘the sky is falling’ that doesn’t reflect the truth,” Gard said. “We’re spending more money on the public schools than ever before.”
Beneficial to Minorities
Gard also noted 70 percent of African-American students in Milwaukee don’t graduate, and vouchers represent an opportunity to reach out to those students and give them more options and choices.
“The defenders of the status quo will never be happy with reform,” Gard concluded.
Vukmir also disagreed with Johnson’s claim.
“It’s taking money away for students the public schools are no longer teaching,” Vukmir said of the MPCP. “And, the voucher schools educate the same children as the Milwaukee public schools–at about half the cost.”
Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s vice president of external affairs.
For more information …
The full text of Wisconsin Senate Bill 618, expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #18858.