Voucher Cap Is Lifted in Milwaukee

Published March 1, 2006

School choice advocates won a major victory February 17 in Wisconsin when Gov. Jim Doyle (D) and Assembly Speaker Jim Gard (R-Peshtigo) reached a compromise in a three-year battle over raising the enrollment cap for choice schools in Milwaukee.

The agreement came one business day before the Milwaukee Department of Public Instruction was scheduled to begin telling schools how to implement seat rationing in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

At press time, the deal was awaiting approval by the Wisconsin legislature, which was scheduled to meet February 21-23. The proposed compromise called for:

  • Lifting the enrollment cap immediately by 7,500 students, to set a new ceiling at 22,500. This represents a 50 percent increase in the number of low-income students citywide who can participate, and a huge increase over the modest 3 percent by which Doyle had previously offered to lift the cap. Between 20 and 25 percent of the 95,000 Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students are now eligible to participate in the program, said School Choice Wisconsin President Susan Mitchell.
  • Ensuring all schools in the program are accredited by December 31, 2009, and that they have applied to one of several independent accrediting agencies, such as the Wisconsin North Central Association or Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, by September 30, 2006.
  • Repealing existing eligibility restrictions. All students whose family income meets 175 percent of the federal poverty level are now able to join the program and can remain in it even if their family’s income rises to 220 percent of the poverty level.
  • Ensuring schools adhere to national standards by giving standardized math, reading, and science tests to fourth-, eighth-, and tenth-grade students. The results will be reported to Georgetown University’s School Choice Demonstration Project from 2006 to 2011, to measure program effectiveness.

Intense Struggle

Gard and Doyle’s struggle over the MPCP enrollment cap had intensified earlier this academic year, when it became clear the previous cap–15 percent of the total MPS enrollment, or approximately 14,500 students–had been reached. As a result, state law required the Department of Public Instruction to begin rationing seats in the 16-year-old program, meaning thousands of students already enrolled might be forced to return to low-performing public schools.

Before the compromise, Doyle offered to raise the enrollment cap to 18 percent of MPS enrollment in exchange for a $25 million funding increase for a state program to reduce class sizes and increase accountability measures. Critics said the 18 percent ceiling would forestall seat rationing by only one or two years, given the citywide demand for voucher seats.

The Wisconsin legislature had passed three bills to lift the enrollment cap over the past few years, and Doyle vetoed all three. Doyle will receive the increased funding for reducing class sizes and increasing accountability measures as part of the deal struck on February 17.

“Of course it’s a compromise–there’s no one person who loves every piece of it, but it is the culmination of a three-year effort to solve this problem,” Mitchell said. “I think there are legislators on both sides of the aisle who dislike provisions of the bill or feel that important issues were not addressed, but I think that at the end of the day, the bill will pass because people understand it is a compromise, a good sound one.

“Our whole coalition is going to work right away to make the point that we consider this a huge win, and it’s very important to pass a bill like this without amendment so the deal doesn’t fall apart,” Mitchell said.

Relieved Celebration

Gard gave the credit to school choice advocates who lobbied for increasing the cap.

“The school choice coalition, the true reformers, have been very focused and unified and really helped turn the heat up, and that gave us the ability to raise awareness within Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin,” Gard said. “It put a lot of pressure on the governor. We just never quit, and we got the deal done.

“It’s been pretty tough on him, but I believe as I said the other day, this is the most important reform movement going on now, and the centerpiece is in Milwaukee. We don’t have enough kids graduating from high school. I’m completely committed to it, and I think we got the biggest win here for school choice.”

In a February 17 statement, Doyle said it was “a reasonable compromise that ensures there will be greater accountability for taxpayer dollars.”

“It not only raises the enrollment cap, but it provides accountability that has been lacking since the program started,” explained Doyle’s spokesman, Dan Leistikow, on February 20. “It significantly expands the small class-size program for the first time in years. This is something the governor has been pushing for for a long time, and was only able to get through the Republican leadership as a result of this agreement. It’s a very good deal for the governor, and most importantly for the schoolchildren of Wisconsin.”

More Applause

Mark Green, one of two Republicans challenging Doyle for the governor’s seat this year, told Madison.com on February 17 that it sounded like a good compromise, but “doesn’t change my belief that there shouldn’t be any cap on the choice program.”

Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix, Arizona, hailed the agreement as a watershed moment.

“It would have been a disaster for Milwaukee schoolchildren had the governor not finally agreed to elevate the interest of children over special interests,” Bolick said in a February 17 statement, referring to the fact that teacher unions are among Doyle’s largest financial backers. “Thousands of Milwaukee schoolchildren owe a huge debt to Speaker Gard and members of the legislature for championing their interests. This is a great day for everyone committed to educational opportunity.”

Nick of Time

Even as applause for the deal was rolling out, however, the Milwaukee Department of Public Instruction was issuing letters to MPCP schools, letting them know how seats would be rationed in case the law didn’t pass. The cap was scheduled to take effect February 20.

“The news came out today that the schools would only be able to keep about 47 percent of their kids without this, so I think people are realizing this was their one shot to get this done,” Gard said. “So we would have a big number of kids being taken out of schools, and a lot of schools wouldn’t survive. It happened in the nick of time. We’re just thrilled that we got this thing done.”

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