Wisconsin Reports on Voucher Program

Program cannot document whether academic achievement is rising for participating students.

By Barbara Miner

A recent legislative report on the Milwaukee voucher program found that participating private schools provide a variety of educational programs and are located throughout the city, but noted that “some hopes for the program – most notably, that it would increase participating pupils’ academic achievement – cannot be documented.”

The report is the only official document that provides a current overview of the Milwaukee voucher initiative, officially known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The report covers the 1998-99 school year, when religious schools were involved for the first time and the program vastly expanded. The report was released Feb. 2 by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau.

The report provides some previously unavailable information, such as the racial breakdown of students receiving the vouchers. It also includes responses to a survey of voucher school parents, which shows them to be generally satisfied with the schools their children attend.

There is little to no information in a number of areas, from academic achievement, to special education services, to the overall racial breakdown of the private voucher schools.

Milwaukee’s voucher program began in 1990, and in 1998-99 religious schools took part for the first time. Under the program, low-income parents receive a publicly funded voucher to send their children to a private school. This year the voucher is worth up to $5,106.

Milwaukee was the first city in the country to institute a voucher program. Cleveland has a similar initiative and this fall Florida adopted a statewide voucher plan. Nationally, the Republican Party has promoted publicly funded vouchers for private schools as a cornerstone of its education program.

In the 1998-99 school year covered by the report, 86 private schools and 5,758 “full-time-equivalent” voucher students took part. (Many students are in half-day kindergarten.) Sixty-three of the schools were religious, serving 70% of the students. About 75% of the voucher students are in kindergarten through fifth grade while fewer than 7% are in high school. The racial breakdown of the voucher students mirrored that of Milwaukee Public School students; about 62% were African American, 19% white, and 13% Latino.

The report does not give a racial breakdown in voucher schools, on either an aggregate or school-by-school basis, that includes non-voucher students. Thus it fails to provide information on whether the voucher program is increasing diversity within individual private schools, which tend to be highly segregated.

One disturbing aspect of the report is the number of schools that gave incomplete data. Nine schools, for instance, did not provide information on the racial breakdown of their voucher students, citing their race as “unknown.” Ten schools did not provide information on their educational program.

A growing concern about the voucher program is the lack of public accountability. It is almost impossible to obtain comprehensive information on the private voucher schools, which argue that they do not have to comply with the state’s open meetings and records laws.

Other highlights of the report include:

Funding. For nine years, the voucher program was funded by state aid that was earmarked for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The report noted that the voucher program did not significantly affect total revenue for MPS only because the school board raised taxes to offset the loss. As a result, “costs to MPS property taxpayers were higher than they would have been in the absence of the Choice program.” The report said that a complete analysis of the fiscal effects of the voucher program on MPS is difficult, in part because it would require “making highly debatable assumptions about where pupils would have enrolled in the absence of the Choice program.” (For instance, would they have enrolled in a private school regardless, or would they have remained in the Milwaukee Public Schools?)

Beginning in the 1999-2000 year, half the money for the voucher program will come from Milwaukee’s state aid and half from districts throughout the state.

Academic quality. The report noted that academic achievement “cannot be documented, largely because uniform testing is not required by participating schools.” Even when voucher schools do give standardized tests, they are not required to release the scores.

Most of the schools attempt some form of independent verification or review of their programs. But 24 of the 86 participating schools are neither accredited nor seeking accreditation, nor subject to any independent review of educational quality. Nine of those do not administer any standardized tests. One of the schools “provided no information to us,” the report said.

Special education. Because the voucher schools are not required to provide special education services, “information on the types of services offered and children served is not available,” the report said. However, the report said there were 171 voucher students identified by MPS the previous year as requiring special services, or about 2% of the voucher students. (About 15% of MPS students receive special education services.) Most of the voucher students probably receive services that are relatively low in cost, the report said, “such as those needed for children with speech and language disabilities or learning disabilities.”

Admissions. There have been concerns about the schools’ admissions practices, and the report identifies alternative procedures “to increase families’ awareness of program requirements during the admissions process.”

The report provides a snapshot and does not attempt to analyze trends over time. Currently, there are no plans for a follow-up report.

The report is available at: www.legis.state.wi.us/lab/windex.htm.