As Doyle, Gard and the Bradley Foundation bask in their voucher school fantasies, Milwaukee taxpayers will foot the bill.
The winners and losers are clear in the deal that lifts enrollment at Milwaukee’s voucher schools.
Winners include Republicans, voucher schools and eager entrepreneurs hoping to open a private school regardless of whether they know anything about education.
Losers include Milwaukee taxpayers, the Milwaukee Public Schools and anyone who cares about public accountability for tax-funded programs.
On March 10, Governor Jim Doyle signed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that raises the number of voucher students from just under 15,000 to 22,500—potentially making the voucher program the fourth largest school system in Wisconsin.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, at one point likening himself to Don Quixote tilting at windmills, was clearly frustrated that the bill’s supporters didn’t seem to care that the voucher program is a raw deal for city taxpayers.
“Milwaukee property taxpayers will continue to pay more for [the voucher program] than is fair and equitable,” Barrett said.
Under the program, the public pays the tuition for low-income Milwaukee children who attend one of the city’s private voucher schools. State dollars pay 55 percent and city taxpayers pick up the other 45 percent. The finances are complicated but, in essence, Milwaukee property taxpayers pay about $1,000 more for every voucher student than they would if that student were enrolled in MPS.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that for 2005-06, the state will fund $51.5 million of the voucher program, with Milwaukee taxpayers paying the remaining $42.2 million. Using the estimate of an additional 2,220 voucher students next year, Milwaukee property taxes could go up an additional $6.5 million, according to Bureau figures.
This year, slightly less than 15,000 students were enrolled at approximately 125 voucher schools and each student received up to $6,351 for tuition.
No one disputes that Milwaukee taxpayers are being forced to pay extra property taxes for a voucher program they never agreed to and over which they have no control. Instead, voucher supporters claim that it is not an appropriate time to fix the funding formula.
The voucher program hurts not only city taxpayers, however. MPS also takes a financial hit. Voucher supporters argue that MPS gets less money because it has fewer students, but it’s more complicated than that. As Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, put it, “The school funding formula is based on a district’s property wealth per student. Because the voucher students are not counted in that formula, Milwaukee looks wealthier than it really is—and thus gets less state aid.”
Doyle, who clearly wanted to take the voucher issue off the table before the November elections, helped craft a compromise acceptable to Republicans by, in part, attaching a promise for increased funding for the SAGE program to create smaller class sizes in Wisconsin public schools. That promise, however, only adds $12.5 million a year for two years (about a third of it for Milwaukee) and will not kick in until the 2008-09 school year. More worrisome, the SAGE dollars are merely a promise and, like any political promise, might be forgotten.
“There does not appear to be anything in this deal that immediately benefits MPS students,” said Michelle Nate, chief financial officer for MPS. “The additional funding for SAGE is a promise, and that promise will not be realized until the next state budget.”
Ever since the voucher program began in 1990, one of the biggest concerns has been its lack of public accountability. The new legislation makes a few halfhearted nods toward increasing accountability, but little more.
While voucher students will now have to take an as-yet-undetermined standardized test in certain grades, the tests will not be the same as those taken by public school students. In addition, the test results will be for use in a private study and will not be released on a school-by-school basis. (Critics have noted this is like a restaurant critic saying there are some good restaurants and some bad restaurants in Milwaukee, but refusing to identify them individually.)
Voucher schools will now also have to be accredited, a long-overdue requirement. Some eyebrows were raised, however, because one of the accrediting bodies will be Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning—which is run by ardent voucher supporter Howard Fuller and which has not previously been seen as an accrediting agency.
Overall, public accountability remains almost nonexistent. The following are areas in which voucher schools do not have to meet the same requirements as public schools; none of these exemptions will change under the new law.
* Voucher schools are not required to hire college graduates, let alone certified teachers.
* Voucher schools do not have to abide by open meetings and records laws. Thus they are not required to disclose attendance, suspension or dropout rates.
* Voucher schools do not have to give the statewide tests required of public schools. Even when students are tested, the results are not released publicly.
* Voucher schools do not have to respect constitutional rights such as free speech and due process. As a result, voucher schools can suspend or expel students at will.
* Voucher schools do not have to abide by state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, marital status or sexual orientation.
* Voucher schools do not have to provide the same level of special educational services. Overall, less than 2 percent of Milwaukee’s private school students require special education—in contrast to roughly 17 percent of MPS students.
Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee introduced several amendments to strengthen accountability measures. All were defeated, even one that merely would have called for the results of standardized tests in the voucher schools to be released to parents and to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Overall, Republicans rejected some 171 amendments offered by the Senate Democrats.
“This is not OK,” Taylor told her colleagues.
She later added, “How can you say you’re concerned [and] know that some of these schools don’t even have books?”
As much as the Republicans cry about accountability of public expenditures, the reality is that after 16 years and half a billion dollars, the public has no idea how well these voucher students are learning.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the Shepherd Express.)
March 21, 2006
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Barbara Miner is writer who lives in Milwaukee and is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.