Do School Vouchers Work? Look to Milwaukee

Tawnell Hobs:

“The schools that have 20% to 30% voucher kids and 70% to 80% fee-paying kids, they look more like the private schools that we sort of put on a pedestal—that have very ambitious programs,” says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas who has studied private-school choice programs for about 19 years. “Ones that enroll a very high percent of voucher students tend to be low-resourced.”

The Milwaukee findings offer a potential road map for the Trump administration, which is preparing a national push for school-choice programs to provide an alternative to traditional public schools. President Donald Trump has called for allocating $250 million for scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, part of a plan to eventually pump $20 billion of federal money into school-choice measures, including vouchers.

Private schools receive less money per student under the Milwaukee voucher program— from $7,323 to $7,969 per student in the last school year—compared with an average of $10,122 for public-school students. The amount, which has increased over the years, was initially set low to help pass the voucher bill in a split legislature.

Public-school officials say they have greater expenses, such as for transportation and for providing services to special-needs students, although they say they haven’t done any comprehensive cost comparisons between public and voucher schools.

Mr. Bender has pushed to expand the funding for the voucher program. Like many proponents, he says the ability of parents to choose is a big benefit in itself, especially for parents seeking a religiously based school.
Mike Ruzicka, president of the 4,000-member Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, a group that supports Milwaukee’s voucher program, says that at the outset supporters were overly optimistic about the program’s potential impact.

“We’ve come to the realization that it’s not going to be a panacea,” he says. He says the voucher program helped some students and has provided families with more options, and has also pushed public schools to do better.Local opponents call the program a failure based on its academic record. Wisconsin state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D., Milwaukee), an opponent who was on the Milwaukee school board during the program’s early years, says
the program’s expansion beyond poor students stretched public-school financing by enabling middle-class students who had been paying for private school to attend them with vouchers.

Much more on vouchers, here.

Will Flanders commentary.

Madison spends nearly $20k per student, far more than voucher schools receive. Despite the above average spending, Madison has long tolerated disastrous reading results.