Milwaukee Voucher Program Facing Headwinds

Published March 1, 2009

Wisconsin lawmakers are expected this legislative session, once again, to take up the question of funding for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Proposals made last session to change the nation’s longest-running voucher program were defeated.

Now, however, the makeup of the state legislature has changed—and those seeking to change the MPCP may have a better chance of pushing through a proposal, said Mike Ford, vice president of operations for School Choice Wisconsin, a reform group based in Milwaukee.

The voucher program’s funding is likely to be questioned in the wake of a 14.6 percent increase in Milwaukee property taxes this year, Ford explained. The tax increase is unpopular, so some legislators are looking for ways they feel the increase can be eased. School choice has been a popular program to blame.

Majority Tactics

In the last session the legislature narrowly defeated a bill that would have prevented participating schools from allowing more than 49 percent of their student body to be MPCP students.

If the law had taken effect last year, participating schools would have been required to cut 7,659 low-income students from their enrollments for the current school year. More than 100 schools serving more than 17,000 students would have had to make deep enrollment cuts.

Bill co-sponsors state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) and state Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, are expected to reintroduce the bill now that Democrats have a majority in the Wisconsin legislature, Ford said.

Choice Saves Money

The recent property tax increase shouldn’t be pinned on MPCP, Ford said, because the program costs taxpayers less than Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) do. Cutting the voucher program to save taxpayers from further tax hikes would be counterproductive.

When federal and other public support is included, total MPCP costs of $6,607 per pupil are about 51 percent less than the $13,486 per pupil MPS spends every year, according to a 2008-09 analysis released by the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau in December.

In addition, Milwaukee residents don’t benefit as much from taxes as others statewide, according to an article by University of Arkansas Professor Robert M. Costrell in the Winter 2009 edition of Education Next: A Journal of Opinion and Research.

“Professor Costrell demonstrates that the MPCP saves money for state taxpayers and property taxpayers outside of Milwaukee,” Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said. “Based on the new Fiscal Bureau report, we also know that Milwaukee property taxpayers now pay less for a student in the MPCP than for a student in MPS.

“As the state prepares to deal with a multibillion-dollar deficit, citizens need to understand that restrictions or cutbacks in Milwaukee’s choice program would come at the expense of taxpayers throughout Wisconsin,” Mitchell noted.

Phillip J. Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.

For more information …

“Public Instruction—General School Aids and Revenue Limits,” Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, December 2008:

“Who Gains, Who Loses? The fiscal impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” by Robert Costrell, Education Next, Winter 2009: