Veto Limits Growth of Milwaukee Voucher Program

Published June 1, 2005

Just two days after one of the nation’s oldest voucher programs celebrated a milestone anniversary, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) vetoed a bill to lift its 15,000-student enrollment cap, placing the program’s future in jeopardy.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), which turned 15 years old on April 27, provides vouchers for the city’s low-income children to attend the private schools of their parents’ choosing. Since 1995, the law has mandated that no more than 15 percent of students enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) system may receive the vouchers. Based on current MPS enrollment, approximately 14,800 students would have been permitted to receive vouchers.

But the number of children enrolled in the MPCP jumped from 12,900 in the 2003-04 school year to 15,000 in 2004-05, prompting the Department of Public Instruction to propose a seat-rationing program for the 2005-06 academic year, displacing approximately 1,500 students. About 100 private schools participate in the program, with 50 more lined up to begin participating this fall.

The Wisconsin legislature sent the bill to Doyle for a signature on the MPCP’s anniversary. Doyle had already vetoed similar bills twice.

Uncertain Future

The latest veto could have dire repercussions for parents such as 61-year-old Dorothy Smith of northwest Milwaukee. She has nine children, grandchildren, and foster children who are all currently using MPCP vouchers to attend private school.

“I’m really disappointed that the governor vetoed it. That should be my right as a parent and grandparent, to send my children wherever I want to,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll still be able to. I’m just real upset.

“Right now, I don’t know where they’ll go [if their seats are rationed off]. I refuse to even think about that right now,” Smith said.

The Department of Public Instruction had not yet announced how it would handle the rationing program as School Reform News went to press.

Politics As Usual

The bill was popular in the legislature, where it passed 58-35 in April, and also among the Wisconsin public. Polls show support for school choice stands at about 60 percent statewide and close to 80 percent in the poor neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

In a media statement issued after the veto, Doyle said he based his decision on data suggesting lifting the enrollment cap could cost Milwaukee Public Schools $15 million in state funds or force a $2 million property tax increase for the city. But since 1993, the MPCP has saved Milwaukee residents about $100 million in property taxes each year.

Doyle said he would consider allowing more students into the program, but any proposal to lift the cap must be tied to increases in funding for smaller class sizes. Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on April 29 he doubted the governor would ever allow the cap to be lifted.

“The governor has been whispering sweet nothings in people’s ears for years on this,” Gard said, “and the truth is he’s not a serious guy on this.”

Proven Results

A Manhattan Institute study by Senior Fellow Jay Greene, published last year, found Milwaukee’s choice students graduate from high school at much higher rates than those enrolled in the city’s public schools–64 percent in 2003, compared to 36 percent in public schools.

Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby, who has studied the effects of competition on student performance, found that in Milwaukee, public schools competing for students had higher student test scores each year between 1997 and 2004 in 12 of 15 academic subject areas.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.