Wisconsin’s Walker Proposes Major Expansion of Milwaukee Vouchers

Published March 22, 2011

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) would make school reform, including an unprecedented expansion of Milwaukee’s two-decade old voucher program, the centerpiece of his budget plan for the coming fiscal year.

Gov. Walker in March signed into law a budget repair bill limiting collective bargaining for public employees, including teachers. While the budget repair bill to help bridge a $4 billion deficit garnered unprecedented media attention, Walker’s FY2011-2012 budget proposal has received comparatively little coverage.

Under Walker’s proposal, K-12 education programs would receive a 5.5 percent reduction in state funding, or approximately $834 million, in the coming fiscal year.

The governor’s biennial budget also proposes to expand school choice throughout the state by increasing access to options such as vouchers and charter schools. The budget would lift the cap on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which currently enrolls more than 20,000 low-income children. The MPCP is the nation’s oldest voucher program.

Would Relax Income Rules
Walker’s budget proposal would lift income restrictions on participation in the voucher plan from 175 percent to 325 percent of the federal poverty line. In the past, Walker has hinted at making the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program a universal voucher program by removing all income restrictions.

Mike Ford, vice president of operations at School Choice Wisconsin, says the governor’s proposal would greatly increase access to quality educational options.

“Gov. Walker’s proposal eliminates superficial enrollment caps, phases out income requirements for new students in participating schools, and allows schools in Milwaukee County to enroll students from the city,” Ford explained.

“Walker’s proposal recognizes the benefits of the MPCP—higher graduation rates than the Milwaukee Public Schools, school safety, parental satisfaction, and its demonstrated positive impact on public school test scores are things that are good for all Milwaukee students, not just those that currently qualify,” Ford said. “These changes allow schools in the MPCP to enroll students just like any other charter or public school in Milwaukee; which simplifies things for parents and for schools.”

Ford also noted more than 80 percent of Milwaukee Public School students are low-income, which ensures the voucher program would continue to benefit families most in need. “The experience of charter schools in the city, which enroll 83 percent low-income pupils despite having no means-testing, shows what will likely happen to schools in the MPCP,” Ford said.

‘Big Expansions’ into Vouchers
Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis, sees the events underway in Wisconsin as “game-changing” for the national school choice movement.

“What’s great about Gov. Walker’s proposal is that he gets that they need to extend school choice to the middle class,” Enlow explained.

“People don’t realize that the irony here is that what it takes to survive and thrive in America is not some false definition of poverty. It’s ridiculous to think some family of five earning $60,000 or $70,000 in urban America is rich,” he said.

“Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida—we’re talking about big expansions into vouchers that are widely available. This is school choice 2.0,” Enlow said.

Call for ‘Choice for Every Child’

Christian D’Andrea, an education policy analyst at the MacIver Institute in Wisconsin, said the benefits for students and families in Gov. Walker’s budget proposal are multitudinous.

“The current proposal stands to benefit school choice options across the state and will increase educational options both in Milwaukee and statewide. The first change is an expansion of the country’s first modern school choice program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” D’Andrea noted. “The new limit of 325 percent of the poverty level—approximately $73,000—expands school choice to the majority of the city’s students and is the first step toward lifting the cap and providing choice for every child in Brew City,” D’Andrea added.

“The second change is an expansion of charter school authorizers and a lifting of the enrollment cap for virtual schools,” D’Andrea explained. “This bill will allow for all 13 four-year University of Wisconsin campuses to authorize their own charter schools, which will help grow the charter school market and bring innovative schools to areas across the state.”

D’Andrea says previous laws restricted charter access and authorization. The new bill could “help spur community involvement and bring additional educational options to students everywhere,” D’Andrea noted.

‘Path of Innovation’

“The expansion of the state’s virtual school laws will help as well, especially in speeding up the school application process for families that previously would have to wait until August to know whether or not their children would be attending these virtual academies,” he added.

D’Andrea also says expansion of school choice options in Wisconsin would be a lifeline for families in a city that’s “sinking to the bottom when it comes to educating children in a major metropolitan area.”

“The MPCP has its flaws, but part of the overarching problem here is that there have been few changes to the program since its inception,” he explained. “Over the past 20 years we’ve seen how other states have run more successful programs based on what they’ve learned in Wisconsin.”

D’Andrea predicts the Milwaukee program’s expansion would launch it “down the path of innovation.”

“Bringing in additional schools throughout the county will help boost the roster of good, quality schools provided by the MPCP, but there’s still much work to be done. This commitment in 2011 will pave the way for greater changes in the future,” he concluded.

Wisconsin has been a leader in providing school choice options since the early 1990s. MPCP in particular has paved the way for other successful school choice programs such as the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and similar programs in Ohio.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.