School Choice & Charters

Deal May Pave Way for Milwaukee Voucher Expansion

February 28, 2006 3 min read
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Another 7,500 students could use state-financed tuition vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee under an agreement between Wisconsin’s Democratic governor and the Republican speaker of the Assembly.

The deal, introduced as legislation last week, would lift an enrollment cap that now allows up to 15,000 Milwaukee students to use the vouchers. A total of 22,500 students would be eligible under the agreement, said Anne Lupardus, a spokeswoman for Gov. James E. Doyle.

Supporters of the program have feared that without such a compromise, some students who use the aid to attend private schools would be barred from receiving the vouchers in the future. The enrollment cap likely will be reached soon, which would force the state to ration slots in the program for next fall. Some 14,700 students currently use the vouchers.

The legislative plan, introduced on Feb. 21, would tighten accountability rules on private schools that accept the vouchers and provide more money for smaller classes statewide in kindergarten through 3rd grade—a move Gov. Doyle badly wanted.

“It will allow the school choice program to continue its growth like advocates wanted, but it will also help public schools in Milwaukee and across the state by providing significant new funding to help lower class size,” the governor said in a statement.

The compromise would require any private school accepting the vouchers to obtain independent accreditation from any number of secular and religious private school groups in the state.

Schools using the vouchers, worth up to $6,300 for each student, also would be required to give students nationally normed standardized tests, such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and to report results to the state and to researchers at Georgetown University in Washington who are monitoring achievement of the Milwaukee voucher students.

The plan also would raise per-pupil funding for class-size reduction in kindergarten through 3rd grade, from the current $2,000 to $2,250 starting in the 2008-09 school year. The increase would provide $25 million in new class-size-reduction funding, including about $8 million for smaller classes in the Milwaukee public schools.

Gov. Doyle vetoed Republican-backed legislation last year that would have raised the enrollment cap to allow a total of 16,500 students to receive vouchers. (“Bill to Expand Milwaukee Vouchers May Be Headed for Veto,” Feb. 2, 2005.)

Accountability in school voucher programs also has emerged as a policy issue elsewhere. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush has backed tighter financial-reporting rules and more state oversight of private schools that accept state money under the state’s three school choice programs, but lawmakers there so far have not approved such new rules.

Legislative OK Needed

The compromise between the Wisconsin governor and Assembly Speaker John G. Gard still must be approved by the GOP-controlled House and Senate. Although some lawmakers expressed their support last week, others were more skeptical.

“Our solution will allow even more families to have a say in where they enroll their children, while increasing accountability for voucher schools,” Mr. Gard said in a statement. “I am confident we now have a program of which we can all be proud and that will be held as a model for school districts throughout the country.”

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which enrolls about 5,600 voucher students, backs the proposal. All of the city’s Catholic schools already are accredited. They also administer the ITBS, the state’s tests, and make scores available to parents.

“The plan that has been agreed to by the governor’s staff, the governor, and the legislature goes right to the quality for all the schools in the program,” said David Prothero, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which enrolls 34,000 students in a 10-county area.

But the state and city teachers’ unions and others opposed to vouchers in Wisconsin contend the state should spend more resources on the state’s public schools.

“This proposal will hurt that vast majority [of students] by taking money out of their schools and putting it into voucher schools,” Stan Johnson, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said in a statement. He noted that the proposed expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program would bring its annual cost to $140 million, compared with about $90 million now.

National advocates of private school choice hailed the possible expansion of the Milwaukee program, which began in 1990.

“This is a great day for everyone committed to educational opportunity,” Clint Bolick, the president of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, said in a statement.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Deal May Pave Way for Milwaukee Voucher Expansion

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