WI Democrats Vote to Slash Voucher Funding

Published August 1, 2001

“So this is what the Democrats do when they’re in charge: They try to kill a program visibly benefiting thousands of needy schoolchildren in Milwaukee.”
“Madison’s Choice Killers”
June 14, 2001 editorial
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In a move that has angered and dismayed parents with children in voucher schools and sent school choice advocates scrambling to save the program, Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate have voted to cut funding of the 10-year-old Milwaukee voucher program by half and to limit further participation in the program.

An earlier proposal to cut the funding to only $1,000 for elementary students was defeated in committee, but at their annual convention in June Wisconsin Democrats adopted an uncontested resolution condemning school choice programs.

If funding of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were reduced by half, more than 5,000 students could be looking for new schools in the fall because of voucher school closings, Milwaukee school choice leader Howard Fuller told State Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, who proposed the program cuts. In the 2000-2001 school year, 9,638 students from low-income families used publicly funded vouchers worth up to $5,326 to pay for tuition at private schools in Milwaukee.

“Significant Challenges” for Public School System

Concerned with the prospect of suddenly having to absorb and educate a large number of students, Milwaukee Public Schools board member Kenneth Johnson requested a staff report detailing how MPS would respond to the worst-case scenario of educating an additional 10,000 students. The report indicated such a scenario could give MPS a $47.5 million budget deficit next year. Superintendent Spence Korte said absorbing that number of students “would cause significant challenges.”

“I don’t think anyone denies that if MS had to absorb even 2,000, much less 5,000, 6,000, or 10,000 kids next year, we would be in disastrous shape for space, money, and class size reduction,” school board member John Gardner told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

How Much Should the Voucher Be?

Arguments for reducing the amount of the voucher currently revolve around the fact that choice schools receive more money for a voucher student than a regular student pays in tuition. That’s because tuition often is held below actual costs to enhance affordability; private schools make up the gap with donations and subsidies. By contrast, the voucher amount for a particular school is determined by the lower of $5,326 or the private school’s operating and debt service cost per student.

Critics argue the schools should get only the amount of the tuition, since it is that amount–not the total operating and debt service cost– that benefits parents. Supporters of the higher voucher amount note private schools are unlikely to secure the required additional funds in other ways, since the burden of subsidies is a major reason for the closing of many parochial schools around the nation in recent years. (See “Catholic Schools Losing Ground,” School Reform News, April 2001).

The Democrat attack on school choice began in May, when State Senator Russ Decker (D-Schofield) proposed slashing the amount of the Milwaukee voucher within two years to $1,000 for elementary students and $1,500 for high school students. With these lower voucher values, parents would be allowed to supplement the vouchers with their own money.

Decker’s stated preference was to end the program completely, but he did not think such a bill would pass. In fact, even his “compromise” proposal did not pass the Joint Finance Committee, which rejected the plan by an 11-5 vote.

Senate Proposes to Halve Voucher Payments

In early June, choice supporters–including former MPS superintendent Fuller, Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, and three MPS board members–sent a letter to legislators urging them to consider “the irrefutable evidence that school choice produces positive results at a very affordable cost.”

Democrats responded with another bomb on June 13, when they launched Chvala’s proposal to halve voucher payments. Parent Carmellett McVicker was one of the stunned choice parents.

“I don’t know what the motive is behind [the Democrats’ action],” McVicker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “but it couldn’t be one with the children in mind.”

GOP Governor Scott McCallum questioned why anyone in the legislature would get in the way of parents and teachers trying to get a better education for their children.

Some Democrats also questioned the wisdom of the Senate’s action. Rep. Antonio Riley, a strong choice advocate from Milwaukee, suggested it could lead to “a lot of disaffection with the Democratic Party.”

The Senate Democrat’s plan included the following provisions:

  • limit state aid for choice students to $2,776 in 2001-02;
  • cap the number of choice students at 10,580;
  • require choice schools to adopt non-discrimination policies and to give their students the state third-grade reading test.

Fuller and other choice advocates have called for an independent evaluation of the choice program through the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau, including the application of state standardized tests but not the release of individual school results.

Assembly Responds with Plan to Increase Choice

Three days after Democrats approved their plan in the Senate, the Republican-controlled Assembly on June 22 approved a plan to increase school choice options for parents in Milwaukee. Although an attempt to create voucher programs in Madison, Racine, Kenosha, and Beloit was defeated, the Assembly plan included the following measures for expanding the Milwaukee program:

  • lift the 15 percent cap and allow an unlimited number of children to participate;
  • raise the family income limit to no more than 185 percent of the poverty level from the current 175 percent;
  • once in the program, families could not be dropped later if their incomes went above the limit;
  • private schools throughout Milwaukee County could accept voucher students, not just private schools in the city.

The Senate and Assembly votes will be reconciled in conference in July.