Milwaukee Voucher Program Turns 25: Impact on MPS

Nov 20, 2014

Students at Benjamin Franklin School on Milwaukee's north side work with their teacher, Glenda Stacker.
Credit Erin Toner

It’s been 25 years since the Wisconsin Legislature approved a voucher program for the city of Milwaukee. How has it impacted the public school district? 

The voucher program started out fairly small, with about 350 kids and seven, non-religious private schools. It's grown significantly, to nearly 26,000 students and more than 100 schools, most of them religious. And that growth has driven changes in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Here’s what we know – MPS now has 77,000 students, far fewer than in 1990, when the parental choice program started. We also know several MPS schools have closed and the rate of kids in special education has grown. What’s murkier is deciphering what changes can be attributed directly to the Milwaukee voucher program.

We hoped for specifics, but MPS did not make its superintendent or any top administrators available for this story. So, we sought surrogates.

“It’s transformed the landscape in the sense of it becoming a free-market competition,” says Milwaukee School Board member Larry Miller, who’s been involved with the district for the voucher program’s entire 25-year history.

Miller has watched taxpayers spend nearly $1.7 billion on vouchers in Milwaukee and extend them to kids from middle-class families.

“This program, in my opinion, started as a program for low-income students and has turned into a movement now to dismantle public education,” he says. “So it’s not doing what it was intended to do and I feel that the results that we’re seeing now are the results of a failed experiment.”

Miller says the voucher program has hurt Milwaukee in several ways. First, he points to the so-called “funding flaw.” The state reduces aid to MPS to help pay for vouchers, so the school district has been forced to levy higher taxes on residents. Miller also blames the choice program for poaching involved parents the public schools. 

“If you create a situation where there’s a draining of families that are clearly and actively engaged in their children’s education and you take those away from our schools and you put those in other programs, it does hurt us. We need active, involved parents,” he says.

Then, Miller points to state test scores that show voucher students in private schools are doing worse overall in reading and math than their counterparts in MPS. Though, a few studies suggest students using vouchers at private schools show bigger achievement gains over time and have higher graduation rates.

Miller admits neither system is doing all that well, but voucher supporters argued that competition for students would lift overall achievement in Milwaukee.

While test scores may have not budged much, the competition seems to have prompted actions within MPS. For instance, the district has sent people door-to-door to try to convince families to come back to the public schools. MPS has also launched advertising campaigns and ramped up PR to boost enrollment. And the district has made changes within schools to attract families, such as more Montessori and K8 schools, like many in the private world.

MPS also created smaller schools, noticeably, at the high school level, and it has closed some poor-performing operations.

“People used to always say, well, if private schools are bad, they’ll close. They won’t get the people to go, they’ll close. Public schools never close. That’s incorrect. Milwaukee closed the poorer public schools,” says John Witte, a UW-Madison professor who’s studied the results of vouchers.

The competition the choice program has created in Milwaukee is cited for causing recent dust-ups between a couple religious voucher schools and the public district. They wanted to purchase vacant MPS buildings, but the district decided it has other plans for them.

Choice may have prompted certain MPS actions or reactions, but overall, the program has created an unjust education system in the city, according to Barbara Miner. She wrote a book about the history of education in Milwaukee and is a leading critic of the voucher program.

Miner says it blurs the separation of church and state and leaves MPS facing the highest hurdles.

“Private schools operate by completely different rules than public schools. They do not have to follow the federal special education law. They do not have to provide bi-lingual education,” Miner says. “They can kick kids out and there’s no constitutional right to free speech or due process.”

Miner says MPS must serve all children who come to it, including those who leave or are “counseled out” of voucher schools. She also points out that MPS is accountable to the public, unlike vouchers schools that don’t have to follow open meetings and records laws.

Yet, Miner says perhaps the most unfortunate result of school choice in Milwaukee is that it’s created an “us-versus-them” mentality.

“It’s been incredibly divisive, incredibly divisive,” she says.

Howard Fuller is a former MPS superintendent who became a national advocate for school choice.

“The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that people who should be friends are enemies because of the program,” Fuller says. “If we had the political will to do so, we could turn it into a powerful way to educate kids. But I just don't think the political will is there.”

What Milwaukee does have, are thousands of teachers and school leaders plugging away, in their separate systems, to educate the city’s children.

Later in our series, we’ll explore whether anyone’s found a formula to help them succeed.