$22 Million Siphoned from MPS to Pay for Private Schools

By Barbara Miner

The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) will lose $22.2 million in state aid the 1998-99 school year because of the voucher program, according to a new study.

When the Wisconsin state legislature passed Milwaukee’s voucher program, it did not separately fund the program. Instead, monies for the vouchers are taken from the state aid given to MPS.

Almost 6,000 students are receiving public dollars to attend voucher and charter schools in Milwaukee. Some $29.2 million in state aid to MPS will be deducted to pay for the students. Because some of the students are included in the count of students within the Milwaukee district, state aid to MPS will increase approximately $7 million. But the net loss to MPS will be $22.2 million in state funding, according to an analysis of state figures by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future (IWF), a think tank in Milwaukee.

“It’s outrageous that MPS, which has one of the lowest per-pupil spending in the area, is going to be losing precious dollars in order to fund private and religious schools,” said Karen Royster, head of IWF. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the voucher program is directly harming the children within MPS.”

For each voucher student, private schools receive payments of approximately $4,950, or roughly the amount of state aid that would have otherwise gone to the Milwaukee Public Schools.

State figures, meanwhile, show that only a fraction of those receiving vouchers this year actually left MPS. Of the 5,902 students receiving vouchers, 4,523 students – or 76% – are either entering school for the first time or were already enrolled in a private school. (2,328 are continuing in private school and are new to the voucher program; 791 are entering kindergarten or transferring from other districts; 1,404 are continuing in private school and the voucher program.) The figures have bolstered critics’ fears that the voucher program is primarily subsidizing private schools rather than being used, as nominally intended, to provide alternatives for children in public school.

The IWF study also points out that the city of Milwaukee charter schools are also draining dollars from the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the 1998-99 year, the city of Milwaukee chartered three schools with a combined enrollment of roughly 300 students. All of the city’s charter schools were existing private schools.

The charter schools were expecting to receive $6,100 per pupil in dollars (which, like the voucher payments are taken from MPS). But because the charter schools have not agreed that they will provide special services to special education students, the state Department of Public Instruction is limiting the payments to $,4950 per students until the dispute is resolved. For now, the state is treating charter school students as “voucher” students, and the charter students are included in the IWF figures.

Privatization to Escalate

Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist has said he hopes to contract charters with an additional 25 to 30 schools next year, with a combined enrollment of about 4,000 students. The voucher schools, meanwhile, can enroll up to 15,000 voucher students. The financial impact of such developments on the Milwaukee public schools is unclear, but it could mean an annual loss of $75 million or more.

Supporters of vouchers have argued that MPS is losing money because it no longer has to educate the students in the voucher schools. But the IWF study points out that, due to extremely complicated funding formulas set by the state, state aid is not calculated on an exact per pupil amount but rather involves factors such as the ratio between the available tax base per pupil and the state’s guarantee of a certain level of support.

The bottom line is this: MPS loses $4,950 for each voucher student. While it receives some money back from the state because some of the voucher students are included in the Milwaukee district membership count used to determine state aid, the amount received back for each voucher student counted is only $1,370.

The IWF study also points out that the voucher program is siphoning money from MPS even though Milwaukee has one of the lowest per pupil spending in the area, yet far and above the highest level of low-income students. Milwaukee spends $7,706 per pupil, and 71% of its students are low income. In the suburb of Whitefish Bay, in contrast, there are no low-income students, and the per pupil spending is $9,101. In the Nicolet High School district, per pupil spending is $12,939, and there are 7.2% low-income students.