Rationing Looms for Milwaukee Choice Program

Published January 1, 2006

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)–the nation’s oldest and largest school voucher program–faces an uncertain future after reaching a statutory enrollment cap of 14,751 students in September 2005.

State officials told participating schools to stop enrolling new students as of October 25, after a determination that the cap–which limits the number of voucher students to 15 percent of the total Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) enrollment–had been reached. Full-scale rationing in the 2006-07 school year is likely.

Wisconsin Gov. James Doyle (D) vetoed three bills to lift the cap over the past two years. “They can keep sending me those same bills over and over again and I’m not going to sign ’em,” Doyle told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2004. Wisconsin teacher unions, the leading opponents of the MPCP, are among Doyle’s strongest supporters.

In early November, Doyle tied support for a small increase in the cap to a $25 million a year increase in public school funding and a $14 million transfer of state school aid to MPS from school districts outside Milwaukee. Doyle is aware these proposals are unacceptable to many state legislators.

Rationing ‘Loses the Essence’

“The governor’s plan has elements that clearly make it unacceptable to a majority of legislators. Unfortunately, this suggests an agenda that has nothing to do with the interests of low-income Milwaukee families,” said Rev. Archie Ivy, a board member of the Milwaukee chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). Regarding Doyle’s professed support for a 3,000-student increase in the cap, Ivy noted, “Within a year or two of enacting his plan, the cap would again be hit.”

Since the pioneering Milwaukee program began in 1990, the MPCP has grown from serving 337 students at seven schools to 14,751 at 126 schools. A 2004 report by national graduation-rate expert Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, shows MPCP students graduate high school at a substantially higher rate than MPS students and at a substantially lower per-pupil cost. Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby has found academic achievement gains among MPS students that she attributes to the competition schools face from the choice program.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has not announced how it will ration spaces. Prior efforts to develop a workable plan highlighted the fact that any scheme will keep thousands of low-income students out, according to choice supporters.

Citing those efforts, Donna Schmidt, former principal of Prince of Peace School, a Catholic school participating in the MPCP, said, “We sat down and met with DPI. The conclusion of all of the principals gathered there that day was that rationing jeopardizes the very essence of the program because families lose the right to choose a school.”

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

For more information …

Dozens of articles and research documents about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are 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 choose the topic/subtopic combination Education/Vouchers: Milwaukee.