Milwaukee Begins to Ration School Choice

Published February 1, 2006

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) officially announced on December 27 its plan for rationing seats in the 15-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) in the 2006-07 school year.

The plan, required by state law, means hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students will not be able to return to the schools they now attend.

Rationing is necessary because the MPCP, the nation’s oldest voucher program, has reached its statutory enrollment cap. DPI estimated the cap–equal to 15 percent of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) enrollment–will total 14,500 in 2006-07. DPI estimates approximately 14,750 students currently participate in the voucher program. However, the department has not released enrollment figures for the 2005-06 school year; under the law, the cap is supposed to go into effect when schools’ requested seats exceed the enrollment cap.

In a December 27 letter to schools in the MPCP, DPI’s MPCP administrator, Tricia Collins, said DPI hoped Gov. Jim Doyle (D) and the state legislature could reach an agreement to lift the cap.

Governor Vetoed Relief Bills

Three times, the Wisconsin legislature has passed bills to lift the cap and sent them to Doyle; he vetoed all three.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a 2006 Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate, said in a December 28 news release, “Rationing will cause chaos for hundreds of families in Milwaukee. … The state must find a reasonable way to lift all the caps.”

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) noted Doyle’s past vetoes.

“The reality is the solution is very simple,” Gard told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a December 28 article, “which is why we probably can’t get it done.” Gard and many other legislators favor straightforward legislation to lift the cap.

Governor Would Attach Strings

Doyle has proposed a modest increase of 3,000 students in the MPCP–a move critics in the legislature and education community point out would only forestall the current crisis by one or two years. As a condition for that increase, Doyle has requested other provisions most legislators oppose, such as mandatory standardized testing and outside accreditation.

Asked what is most likely to happen if the stalemate persists, Gard said, “It would appear to me that a lot of kids are going to be kicked out of these schools, and the rationing plan is going to go into effect.”

Details of the rationing plan were still pending at press time, though it was known it calls for schools to get a percentage of their requested seats. In the 2004-05 academic year, schools requested 26,908 seats. A similar number for 2005-06 would result in schools getting approximately half of their requests filled.

Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and a strong supporter of the voucher program, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a December 28 article, “I’m hopeful that this will awaken people to the fact that a cap on the choice program will be disastrous for broad education reform in Milwaukee. … I think this will affect the delivery of education to every kid in the city of Milwaukee, not just to those in the choice program.”

Turning Students Away

At Clara Mohammed School, a K-12 school in Milwaukee’s inner city, teachers already have agreed to accept pay cuts in order to prevent layoffs due to the crisis; if voucher students are removed from the program, the money follows them, affecting school budgets. Principal Basimah Abdullah said the cap is already beginning to hurt, because teachers are taking pay cuts and students are worried about their futures.

“When a child asks me, ‘Will I be able to go here next year?’ and I can’t say yes, it sends a sharp pain to my heart,” Abdullah said.

Jeff Monday, principal of the Messmer Catholic Schools, which consists of a K-8 school on Milwaukee’s east side and a high school on the north side, already has turned away students because of the cap.

“We receive calls every day from parents desiring to enroll their children into Messmer,” Monday said. “It is frustrating to not be able to provide hope that they have a chance.”

The prospect of disruptive rationing follows a series of positive articles on Milwaukee’s educational options published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December. Citing numerous examples along the city’s North Avenue, the paper said the expansion of educational options had made it “the main street of American school reform.”

Mike Ford ([email protected]) is a research associate at School Choice Wisconsin.

For more information …

Alan J. Borsuk’s three-part series on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is available on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Web site through the following links: