Milwaukee’s Voucher Verdict What 26 years of vouchers can teach the private-school choice movement—if only it would listen

Erin Richards:

Together, Travis Academy and Holy Redeemer have received close to $100 million in taxpayer funding over the years. The sum is less than what taxpayers would have paid for those pupils in public schools, because each tuition voucher costs less than the total expense per pupil in Milwaukee Public Schools. But vouchers weren’t supposed to provide just a cheaper education. They were supposed to provide a better one.

CREATED IN 1990 BY A COALITION of black parents and school-reform advocates with the blessing of a Republican governor, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program aimed to allow poor parents to withdraw their children from public schools and send them to higher-performing private schools they probably couldn’t otherwise afford.

Today, a little under a third of Milwaukee’s school-age population attends voucher schools. Overall, test-score outcomes for the Milwaukee Public Schools and the private voucher schools are remarkably low, and remarkably similar: On the latest state tests, about 80 percent of children in both sectors were not proficient in English and about 85 percent were not proficient in math. The voucher high schools, however, posted slightly higher 11th-grade ACT scores this year than Milwaukee Public Schools: a 17.5 composite, compared with the district’s 16.5.

The voucher program is not to blame for all of that, of course, but some wonder why the major reform hasn’t made more of a difference. The program has bolstered some decent religious schools—mostly Catholic and Lutheran—which would have never maintained a presence in the inner city serving poor children without taxpayer assistance. It’s helped to incubate a couple of private schools that eventually became high-performing charter schools. But it’s extended the same life raft to some abysmally performing schools that parents continue to choose for a variety of reasons besides academic performance. And it’s kept afloat a great number of mediocre programs.

Research shows Milwaukee parents have listed small class sizes and school safety among their top reasons for choosing a voucher school. Safety per se doesn’t equal educational excellence, but parents’ perceptions of safety can drive their decision-making. But are those perceptions accurate? Advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin examined police-call data for Milwaukee’s public and voucher schools in recent years and determined voucher schools to have proportionally fewer requests for assistance, but voucher schools also serve a disproportionately small number of students in high school, where many of the most serious school incidents warranting police attention occur. Objective data on school safety are hard to come by without records of incident reports, suspensions, and expulsions.

Henry Tyson, the superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School, a popular and high-performing voucher school that now serves children in Milwaukee’s central city, has long been frustrated at the lack of state and local political attention given to policies that would help expand high-performing programs and eliminate low-performing ones.

“I am intensely frustrated by the voucher schools that are chronically underperforming over a long period of time,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, any school that has been open three years or more that is under 5 percent proficiency should close, whether that’s a public school, charter school, or voucher school.”

Milwaukee has failed to develop such a mechanism in part because many choice advocates don’t want to give more power to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which they do not believe is an objective overseer. Other advocates refuse to acknowledge that parent choice alone will not always raise the quality of the market.

“What we need to do is to toil every day and keep pushing for that Berlin Wall moment,” says Kevin Chavous, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and education-reform advocate who supported the launch of the federally funded D.C. voucher program. Chavous is a founding board member of the AFC, and a tall African American with piercing blue-gray eyes and an industrious nature—he’s written entire books on education reform during long-distance flights. He believes that school choice can and will become the dominant method of delivering educational opportunity in America.

“We’re close to that tipping point,” he said in May 2016 during AFC’s annual conference at National Harbor, a resort hugging the Potomac River just south of D.C.

It’s important to remember that private-school choice is still just a tiny sliver of the pie when it comes to publicly funded education in America. Approximately 50 million children attend public schools run by school districts. About 2.5 million attend public charter schools. And only around 400,000 attend private schools with the help of voucher, tax-credit scholarship, or education-savings account, according to EdChoice. But substantial jumps could be around the corner, especially as the programs continue to expand from targeting solely low-income children to being open to all.

A useful article. Links and detailed spending comparisons would be useful. Madison currently spends around $18k per student, far ahove the antional average. Similar achievement at less than half the cost of traditional K-12 organs is worth exploration, perhaps offering opportunities to help students in the greatest need, such as many in Madison.