Are School Vouchers Worth It?

May. 15, 2013
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Are taxpayers really getting their bang for their buck when it comes to funding school vouchers?

The short answer from the Forward Institute is no.

The new, progressive public policy research organization released its comprehensive report today on Wisconsin’s education funding and poverty and it’s well worth a close read.

A portion of the report examines taxpayer funding for voucher schools and their performance.

Now, this isn’t easy to do since schools that accept vouchers don’t have to provide the kind of data that fully public schools provide, even though the state has enhanced some of the voucher schools’ accountability measures.

That said, the Forward Institute chose to look at state aid per pupil and the percentage of students that test proficient or advanced on state tests. (You’ll find all of this on page 46 of the report.)

Let’s just acknowledge here that both public schools and voucher schools take in money from other sources. Both types of schools typically spend more per pupil than what they receive from state taxpayers.

Voucher advocates want the value of the voucher to increase (and Gov. Scott Walker has proposed doing so) because they say that they want parity with public schools. They want more taxpayer money because the voucher isn’t keeping up with rising expenses. That said, they also claim that they are able to educate kids more cheaply than the Milwaukee Public Schools. So voucher schools want more money at the same time they claim to be a better value for taxpayers. Got it. Not contradictory at all.

What the Forward Institute looked at is the amount of per pupil state aid and state taxpayers’ return on investment in students—how many of them are performing well on standardized tests.

The Forward Institute found that Milwaukee Public Schools receive $6,442 in state aid per pupil (the same as vouchers, FYI), had 59.7% proficient/advanced in reading and 50.3% proficient/advanced in math. According to Forward Institute’s calculations, that’s a cost of $10,783 per pupil to achieve a score of proficient or advanced in reading and $12,812 to do so in math.

Now, the Forward Institute found that contrary to voucher advocates’ claims that they are able to educate kids more cheaply, it actually costs taxpayers more money to get a voucher student to achieve advanced or proficiency levels in reading and math tests. Just 39.9% of Milwaukee voucher students are proficient in math and 56.4% are proficient in reading.

While it cost MPS $12,812 per pupil to achieve proficiency in math, it cost voucher schools $16,145 per pupil to do so. Similarly, it cost MPS $10,783 per pupil to achieve proficiency in reading but it cost vouchers $11,422 per pupil to do so.

The Forward Institute also compared these figures to school districts across the state that have the highest percentage of kids who are economically disadvantaged.

They found that these non-Milwaukee low-income districts can achieve advanced or proficiency rates at $7,958 per pupil in math and $7,364 in reading.

In addition, the Forward Institute found that voucher schools are graduating a high percentage of students who are not performing well on tests in high school.

Statewide, proficiency in math and reading in the 10th grade equals the graduation rate. In MPS, for every two graduates there is one testing proficient in reading and math in the tenth grade.

That isn’t great, but MPS’s graduation:proficiency ratio is stellar when you compare it to the voucher schools’ graduation rate.

More than 20 kids graduate from a voucher school for every 10th grade voucher student who tests proficient in reading or math.

Put simply, the value of a voucher school diploma isn’t worth much.

And if Walker’s voucher funding boost is passed in the state budget, state taxpayers will be sinking even more money into these questionable diplomas.

I’ll have much more to say about the Forward Institute report in this blog and in next week’s Shepherd.



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