Milwaukee Legislator Aims to Dismantle Choice

Published April 1, 2008

Wisconsin state Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) recently caused an uproar with a proposal to drastically reduce the scope of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the nation’s oldest and largest school voucher program for low-income students.

In a January 7 letter to fellow representatives, Kessler offered proposals he said would reduce enrollment in the choice program by “nearly 40 percent.”

Kessler would, among other things, cut per-pupil payments to schools enrolling voucher students. Currently those payments are $6,501 or the amount it costs the school to educate the student, whichever is less. Kessler proposes to reduce the payments to the amount schools actually charge tuition-paying students, failing to take into account that tuition at most parochial schools is subsidized by congregations.

The head of the Milwaukee legislative caucus, state Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), took issue with Kessler’s plan.

“The idea of segregation, the idea of separate but equal, and being told that you can only go to a particular school because of your race, is exactly why we now have school choice,” said Fields. “I find it quite troubling that there are those among us who ignore history and ignore this truth by choosing to enact policies that take away a person’s freedom to choose.”

Redundant Requirements

Kessler’s proposal also contains a number of provisions that duplicate requirements already imposed on schools and families that participate in the MPCP. For example, all teachers in MPCP schools are required to have college degrees, and the schools are required to admit special-needs students. Parents are already required to show proof of income eligibility before their children are allowed to participate.

Under current law, all MPCP schools must obtain accreditation, a process that requires degreed teachers. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has always required MPCP schools to obtain and keep documents proving the income eligibility of participating families. And DPI clearly states in its MPCP “Frequently Asked Questions” document, “A private school may not discriminate against a child with special educational needs in the admission process for the Choice program.”

According to a January 21, 2008 entry in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s SchoolZone Education Blog, Kessler withdrew his proposal after being made aware many of his proposed changes were in fact already law. “If somebody had said to me, ‘That’s already the case,’ I would have backed off,” Kessler told the paper.

School Choice Wisconsin President Susan Mitchell expressed disappointment with Kessler’s lack of awareness.

“The willingness of some Milwaukee legislators to work to kill a program that benefits almost 20,000 of their own constituents, coupled with their unwillingness to learn the most basic facts about it, is disturbing,” Mitchell said.

Ongoing Threat

Kessler is the latest in a long line of school choice opponents to claim reducing MPCP enrollment would result in more funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). In his January 7 letter Kessler wrote, “Any money saved by the state due to a drop in [MPCP] enrollment should be returned to MPS.”

According to a January 14 memo from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, eliminating the MPCP would cost the state of Wisconsin up to $89.4 million. “Countless reports from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau establish unequivocally that state costs for a student in MPS substantially exceed those for a student in the MPCP,” Mitchell said.

While Kessler’s proposal appears to be dead, the future of the MPCP remains threatened despite a steady stream of positive results, including a recent report from the University of Minnesota showing MPCP has a higher graduation rate than MPS. (See “Milwaukee Voucher Program Students More Likely to Graduate than Others,” page 7.)

“The success of school choice in Milwaukee has made the program here a key target of opponents who don’t want the positive news to spread,” Mitchell said.

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

For more information …

“Kessler on voucher proposal: ‘It’s pretty dead,'” by Dani McClain, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, January 21, 2008:

“Graduation Rates for Choice and Public School Students in Milwaukee” by Dr. John Robert Warren, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, January 2008: