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The High Cost and Low Benefits of School Vouchers

Walker wants to expand a low-performing, unaccountable program

Feb. 27, 2013
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It was no surprise that Gov. Scott Walker yet again expanded the state’s voucher school program, under the guise of providing more choice for families. Walker proposes to implement vouchers in nine additional districts, as well as increase the amount of the state-funded voucher from $6,442 to $7,050 per pupil for K-8 and $7,856 per pupil for voucher high schools in the 2014-15 school year, while flatlining funding for public schools. He also wants to implement a statewide voucher for students with special needs who want to attend private schools, even though private schools are not required to provide special programs for these students.

But what is surprising is that Walker is throwing his support behind a program that hasn’t delivered on its promises to provide low-income students in Milwaukee with a better education. If it were a school district, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (now more than 20 years old) would be the third-largest school district in the state. Yet students who use vouchers are doing no better than their peers in the Milwaukee Public Schools; they’re attending hyper-segregated schools with more than 90% minority and low-income students; and little is known about the quality or content of their curriculum.

Barbara Miner, a voucher critic and author of Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, said conservatives’ support for vouchers has nothing to do with providing a quality education for the city’s most vulnerable children. Rather, Miner argues, the voucher program, developed as a way to thwart desegregation, promotes privatization of public institutions with public dollars.

“For 20 years, vouchers were a conservative’s dream,” Miner said. “No unions, no bureaucracy, no mandates from the state. Do whatever you want. But after 20 years of being sold this bill of goods, we see that everything is not OK. So what is their response? They expand vouchers. To me it’s pretty clear that this is not about education. It’s about taking money out of public schools and funneling it into private schools.”

In effect, Walker is asking state taxpayers to do what no smart business investor would do: spend an additional $73 million on a program that provides little information to the public about its operations and outcomes. And the small bits of data that are publicly available don’t foster much confidence in voucher schools’ performance.

But Steve Baas, vice president of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), said that vouchers are a wise investment in the city’s educational system. And, Baas said, the state should increase public support for the program.

The discussion the public needs to have, Baas argues, “is one on equity and one on whether we are going to value all of the children equally or whether we are going to segregate them economically based on which silo and which school system they’re in.”


Subsidizing the Middle Class and Religious Schools

Although the program was created to serve students from low-income families who could not afford tuition at private schools, that goal was abandoned in Walker’s first state budget, which lifted the income cap to 300% of the federal poverty level. Currently, a single parent with one child can earn up to $45,939 and qualify for the voucher program; so can a family of three with an income of up to $57,870.

A $7,000 break for married couples has been added as well. According to the formula, a married couple with two children can receive a voucher if their income does not exceed $76,801, according to a January report by the nonpartisan state Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB).

Compare that to the median family income in the city—$37,879—and it’s clear that the program has strayed far from its original goal of providing a “choice” for families who can’t afford private school tuition.

In fact, the Public Policy Forum found that the growth in the voucher program in 2011 can be attributed to students who were using vouchers to attend the private (typically religious) school they’d already been enrolled in.

There’s also a giant loophole in the law that can be exploited by high-earning families. Family income is only considered when a student applies for admittance into the voucher program. Income isn’t considered in subsequent years, so a student can continue to receive a voucher even if his or her family’s income spikes and far exceeds the income limit.


Lack of Transparency

Until a few years ago, schools with voucher students didn’t have to report test scores or other information about their student population or performance to the state. Now, however, voucher schools must administer the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) to students and report that data.

However, those results are not included on the statewide School Report Cards, which are easily accessible on the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) website. Those color-coded report cards include a wide range of data about every public and charter school in the state—school demographics, student achievement and growth, achievement gaps, graduation rates, student engagement and ACT participation and performance—so that parents can make informed decisions about their child’s schooling.

Not so with voucher schools. After much debate in the state Legislature, Democrats were able to force voucher schools to submit their test scores to DPI, which posts them. But this publicly available information is far more limited than what’s available in the public schools’ report cards—and it’s difficult to find on DPI’s website. There’s no data about voucher schools’ demographics, graduation rates, college prep or other information that parents could rely on when selecting a school for their child.

Anneliese Dickman, research director at the Public Policy Forum, expressed frustration with the limited voucher school information that’s publicly available—not only for parents, but for researchers and policymakers who are interested in evaluating school performance and replicating high-performing programs. Dickman said, for example, that reliable statistics about voucher schools’ graduation rates cannot be found; the rate reported by researchers from the University of Arkansas (4% higher than MPS’s graduation rate, a figure routinely touted by voucher supporters) is based on incomplete data, she said.

“To just say that you have all of these choices without providing any sort of ways to help [parents] narrow it down is unfair,” Dickman said.


Lack of Support for Special Education Students

A new element in Walker’s budget is a statewide $21 million “scholarship” for special needs students. Yet no statewide organization that serves students with disabilities has asked for this provision or supports it.

It’s easy to see why. According to figures provided by Disability Rights Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Family Assistance Center for Education, Training and Support (WI FACETS), the vast majority of students with special education needs attend public schools. About 13% of Wisconsin’s students have special needs and 19% of MPS’s student population is made up of special needs students. Yet only 2% of their peers are in voucher schools.

Data show that special needs students are not being served in the voucher system. Testing results submitted to DPI show that special needs students in MPS are outperforming their peers who use vouchers. (See sidebar.) And while voucher schools cannot overtly discriminate against a student with a disability, they are able to turn away students if they cannot accommodate them without accruing high costs.

In contrast, special needs students in the public schools have a wide variety of federally guaranteed rights, including the right to a free education, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to set and evaluate goals, an interpreter or other services if necessary, and much, much more.

Jan Serak, executive co-director of WI FACETS, said parents of special needs students don’t realize that their child will lose these rights when they enroll in a private school.

“They think that they will get equal or better services, but they won’t,” Serak said.

She said she feared that the expanded vouchers would allow private schools to skim off the easiest-to-educate students, while the students with the most challenges will be concentrated in the public schools. Yet Walker didn’t include additional funding for special education services or for teaching “high cost” students.


Penalizing Local Property Taxpayers

Advocates like MMAC’s Baas claim that vouchers are a more economical way to educate children, since vouchers only cost taxpayers $6,442 per pupil (or $7,050 per elementary student and $7,856 per high school student next year, if Walker’s budget is approved).

But MPS—and city of Milwaukee taxpayers—are left footing the bill, thanks to the program’s funding flaw. As a result, MPS lost $53.6 million in 2012 to fund voucher schools; city taxpayers had to pay that extra $53.6 million as part of their property taxes.

MPS also loses when a voucher student returns to a public school. According to figures provided by MICAH, 448 voucher and charter students went back to MPS between the third Friday in September (when the head count is conducted for state aid) and Dec. 1, 2012. But the tax dollars didn’t follow those students immediately.

Those local tax penalties will grow if state support for vouchers increases in Milwaukee and the funding flaw stays in place. And if vouchers are expanded to nine other districts, as Walker wishes, those communities will begin paying more for a second, unaccountable school district in which they have no vote or voice.


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