Wisconsin boosts cap for new schools

Participation in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, first started in 1989, was increased by 50 percent when Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle approved legislation that would lift the cap on the number of students eligible for scholarships or "vouchers," from 15,000 to 22,500.

Proponents of parental choice in Wisconsin fought hard to convince Doyle to sign a bill he vetoed on three previous occasions. The effort to persuade the governor included an ad campaign that pointed out Doyle’s son attended a private school.

According to School Choice Wisconsin, an organization that supports vouchers, public charter schools and other parental options in education, said the voucher program has come under attack for many different reasons over the years, and each time the accusations are refuted.


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Student achievement is among the latest issues to be examined. Jay P. Green, a professor at the University of Arkansas, found in a 2004 study that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program attending private schools had a 64 percent graduation rate, compared to 41 percent in the city’s six magnet high schools, and 36 percent for the 37 other high schools.

The cost of the program, in which low-income students in Milwaukee can use tax-funded scholarships to attend private or parochial schools, also has come under scrutiny. MPCP vouchers are worth $6,351, compared to the $11,705 that Milwaukee Public Schools spends on each student. Charter schools in the city receive $7,519 per student.

Students in the MPCP program cannot attend school outside the city of Milwaukee, but further limiting or stopping the program would negatively affect schools statewide. A Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau study said school aid for the 425 districts outside Milwaukee would have to be cut in order to make up the difference in the voucher amount and the MPS amount. For example, if 75 percent of voucher students returned to Milwaukee Public Schools, state aid to the rest of the state’s public schools would be reduced by nearly $37 million, with that money then being transferred to MPS. By contrast, Milwaukee Public Schools, in its own study, said that if the voucher students returned to MPS, the district would face an initial capital outlay of $70 million and an operating deficit of the same amount.

Accountability, long an argument against school choice of any kind, is a non-issue with the MPCP. Schools that accept voucher students in Milwaukee must meet state education guidelines regarding hours of instruction, compulsory attendance and curriculum content, health and safety regulations and financial accounting standards. They must also admit eligible students randomly and allow students to opt out of religious activities.

Indeed, five schools were removed from the program last year for not meeting accountability standards, and another 51 have been turned away in the last 18 months, according to the Heartland Institute.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a 1998 decision that upheld the constitutionality of vouchers, pointed out the highest level of accountability a school can face.

"Schools in the MPCP are also subject to the additional checks inherent in the notion of school choice. If the private schools do not meet the parents’ expectations, the parents may remove the child from the school and go elsewhere," the majority opinion said.

Florida court rejects vouchers

Half a continent away, however, the status of vouchers is decidedly different. The Florida Supreme Court on Jan. 5 struck down the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program because, in the words of the court, "through the OSP the state is fostering plural, nonuniform systems of education in direct violation of the constitutional mandate for a uniform system of free public schools."

The 5-2 vote will affect about 720 students, although the court said they could remain in their current schools until the end of the school year. The OSP had been an alternative for students assigned to failing public schools. A failing public school under Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s "A-plus plan for education" was one that received an F grade twice in four years on a state performance report card.

The court sided with those who oppose vouchers, citing a 1998 amendment to the Florida constitution that calls for a "uniform" system of public education.

The court’s decision did not directly speak to two other Florida choice programs. McKay Scholarships, for students with disabilities, can be used by students to attend independent schools after spending one year in their assigned public school. The vouchers in this program can be worth more than $20,000, depending on the student’s disability, and are used by about 15,500 students.

The Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship is for low-income students, classified as those who are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. Private companies can donate money for the program, run by a non-government agency, which then gives students $3,500 scholarships. The companies receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their donations. About 10,400 students participate.

In an Op-Ed appearing in the Palm Beach Post last June, Institute for Justice attorney Clark Neily argued that the OSP actually gave public schools true accountability.

"Many states promise all students a quality public education; only Florida delivers by saying to parents: ‘If we can’t get the job done, we’ll give you a scholarship so you can find someone who will.’"