Milwaukee School Choice Spurs Investment

Published December 1, 2005

The growth of school choice in Milwaukee has led to more than $118 million in spending on new and remodeled schools in Milwaukee since the citywide voucher program began in 1990.

The impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) on facility improvement is detailed in a new report, “School Choice and Community Renewal,” released in late September by School Choice Wisconsin (SCW). Information for the report was gathered through a comprehensive survey of the 140 choice schools.

“Many of the [facility improvement] projects involve new and renovated schools in areas of high poverty. The projects help stabilize these neighborhoods and take fiscal pressure off the Milwaukee Public Schools and its taxpayers,” SCW President Susan Mitchell said.

‘Families Can Remain’

The study revealed that since 1990, $80.2 million has been spent on new schools and facility improvements in private schools participating in the MPCP, $30.2 million in independent charter schools, and $8.2 million in private partnership schools serving public school students.

The 91 projects at 71 schools ranged in cost from $1,000 to $8.2 million, with the average project costing about $1.3 million. Funds were provided by an array of sources, including private grants, loans, and capital campaigns. Public funds were not counted in the survey.

The projects ranged from basic maintenance to construction of new schools. One prominent project took place at St. Anthony School on Milwaukee’s south side, where the 133-year-old school finished a $1.1 million renovation last year.

“Parents no longer need to abandon central city neighborhoods in order [for their children] to attend quality schools,” St. Anthony President Terry Brown said. “Families can remain in their neighborhoods and create a strong and cohesive social fabric because they are confident that they are exercising the best available educational choice for their children.”

Rationing Looms

St. Anthony’s and other schools in the MPCP face considerable uncertainty, however, because they could soon be forced to deal with seat rationing in the program. State law caps total enrollment at a number equal to 15 percent of students in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

The ceiling–currently 14,751 students–was reached in October. Rationing would disrupt planning by families and schools throughout the MPCP by dividing up the limited number of spots in the program between former recipients and new applicants. Some children who qualify for the program won’t be able to participate.

Governor Proposes Lifting Cap

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D), who vetoed three separate legislative efforts to lift the cap and avoid rationing over the past three years, on November 4 proposed increasing MPCP enrollment to 18 percent of the number of students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Doyle’s proposal is part of a much larger education package that also changes standardized tests and accreditation requirements, increases MPS funding, and reduces class sizes statewide.

Because Doyle’s proposed reform package includes so many facets, Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, gave it little chance of passing. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) expressed similar misgivings to the Associated Press on November 5, saying if Doyle “was serious about giving Milwaukee’s low-income minority parents continued educational choices, he would propose a choice cap expansion plan that has no strings attached.”

Howard Fuller, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a nonprofit school choice advocacy organization based in Milwaukee, said in a November 4 news release that Doyle should simply lift the cap altogether. “The Governor’s intentions will be measured by his willingness to work with legislative leaders on a plan that has a reasonable chance of passing the Assembly and Senate,” Fuller said.

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