A brief history of Wisconsin’s voucher school system: Less effective and more expensive than promised.

Child locked out of school

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By Yesica Balderrama

May 31, 2024

Many Wisconsin taxpayers may not know a small experiment has grown to the point where they are now funding two separate school systems.

It’s the $700 million answer to the question, “Why are Wisconsin taxpayers seeing a record number of school referendums?”

Voucher-funded schools. The once-small, Milwaukee-only experiment three decades ago is now a program that funds around 400 private, mostly religious schools in a “parental choice” program that has proven to be no better—and in some ways worse—than had those billions of dollars been invested in public schools.

So how did we get here?

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was created, starting in the 1990-91 school year, to combat inequality, supporters promised, by offering low income students taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools at no cost. But MPCP schools had high failure rates in the program’s early years. The institutions that closed either lacked a long-term financial plan, or were not supported by established organizations. The number of unsuccessful voucher schools started to decline after the state imposed strict requirements for opening a private institution in 2012.

Wisconsin has one of the largest financial wealth and educational achievement gaps between white and Black residents in the country, according to the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Three decades since its launch, MPCP schools have not shown notable improvements in meeting the objective of advancing education and economic equality for students living in poverty and for students of color. Studies have shown low performing pupils are most likely to be pushed out of the system, rather than helped by it.

The test results between private and public schools differed little, and at times, voucher school pupils performed worse. Yet as the Wisconsin Legislature stayed mostly in Republican control, the number of voucher institutions continued to grow and to siphon more taxpayer money annually—always done until 2023 as part of the state budget process rather than as a standalone bill that would require public testimony and separate votes by lawmakers. Taxpayers paid $198 million during the years 2001-2013 for voucher schools that would eventually close. The institutions are not overseen by elected school boards, and are not legally required to protect the rights of students.

Wisconsin led the movement for voucher schools in America

MPCP, the country’s first private school system of its kind, was created after parents expressed dissatisfaction with the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) system. In 1995 the program expanded to include religious schools. Then three years later, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional to give the sectarian schools public funding, dubiously justifying the move as a matter of parents choosing private religious schools (to be funded with public dollars) rather than direct state support of religious schools.

The institutions depend on support from state tax dollars, even if they are labeled as “private.” Wisconsinites now pay for both the voucher school system and the public school system. MPCP grew from seven schools in 1990-1991 to 130 schools in 2023 to 394 schools accepting registration for the 2024-25 school year, according to the latest data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The majority are Catholic and Lutheran.

Voucher schools failed at the start

A 2016 study, Determinants of Organizational Failure in the Milwaukee School Voucher Program, revealed two-fifths of voucher schools shut down during the first decades of the program. Michael Ford, Associate Professor of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, was a researcher for the investigation. He and his co-researcher analyzed DPI data about MPCP schools that operated during years 2001-2015. They found the average lifecycle of startup schools was 4.3 years.

“The way voucher funding works for the Milwaukee program is schools, they’re not able to carry money over year to year, so they’re highly reliant on their enrollment in that first year. And if a school was expecting 50 students and only 25 showed up, they were kind of in trouble. A secondary factor is being affiliated with some type of network like an archdiocese. It was those private schools that were nested in larger networks that were most likely to survive or be successful,” said Ford.

Besides not having enough student enrollment, other major reasons voucher schools failed included not planning for long term funding, and not being connected with a prominent religious organization. Nonsectarian schools or independent Christian institutions were more likely to be unsuccessful. According to Ford, in northern Milwaukee, an area with mainly Black residents, schools affiliated with small local churches were especially impacted. The schools lacked support from larger establishments.

“There was a period in the late 90s, early 2000s, where there was a lot of activity. And part of the reason was, it was incredibly easy to open a school. You filled out a form and you met some pretty basic accountability requirements. But since 2015, the number of school failures have gone way down. And that’s primarily a function of new barriers to entry. It’s a lot harder now to open a school. So therefore, fewer schools are failing,” said Ford.

Ford attributes the early large number of voucher institute failures in the study to lax conditions by the state to open a school. About 70% of voucher institutions never even opened their doors. The regulations for opening a voucher school did not tighten until after 2010, when the institutions were required to receive accreditation and to submit a budget plan that would cover all school expenses. Today voucher institutions need a year of lead time to meet requirements before starting. The schools don’t receive money right away like they used to.

The new rules that make it harder for voucher schools to get accreditation before opening saves Wisconsin taxpayers money in the long run. Residents don’t fund schools that either fail or leave the system. During the years 2001-2013, taxpayers paid $1.6 billion in total for MPCP education. About one-quarter or $388 million, was spent on voucher schools that either left the system or closed.

Voucher schools have little impact on student academic performance

Several studies have shown voucher schools have little to no effect in the academic improvement of students. The School Demonstration Study, published in 2012, tracked thousands of Wisconsin students for a period of five years. It revealed there were no notable differences in the math and English state exam scores of students from public schools when compared to the results of private school students.

More evidence emerged after 2016 from long-term studies in other states. Low income voucher school students performed worse on state math exams in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and Washington DC, according to the National Coalition for Public Education. The exam scores showed -0.50 and -0.13 standard deviations of learning loss. The test results were worse than scores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent data showed similar outcomes on state exams. During the 2022-2023 school year, voucher school students scored 22.1% in ELA and 17.9% in math, and public school students scored 38.9% in ELA and 37.4% in math.

Voucher schools did not always show negative academic results. Early studies demonstrated contradictory results. In a 2002 analysis student test scores improved in Ohio, New York, and Washington. “The last study to show that vouchers academically helped children, was all the way back in 2002. So it’s been a really long time.” said Joshua Cowen, Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University.

MPCP school students did have higher school graduation rates and four-year college enrollment than public school students, but pupils do not have to meet the same qualifications as MPS attendees to obtain a high school diploma. Private schools do not have curriculum standards and educators can teach without being certified. “Graduation rates are a little bit contested in that the schools don’t have the same graduation requirements,” said Ford.

But having greater high school graduation rates doesn’t necessarily mean private school students are more likely to obtain a college degree from a four year program. Generally, high school graduation rates have increased nationally the past decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And the nationwide gains were much larger than the minor positive impacts observed at voucher schools, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Who vouchers serve

The history of the voucher schools traces back to the mid-twentieth century. Milwaukee was primarily a European immigrant city until the Great Migration of Black families, predominantly from the South, who moved to the area after World War I seeking to be part of a sharp rise in manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, Black Americans comprised 15% of the city’s population. The civil rights movement encouraged some locals to oppose inequities while triggering pushback from some and “white flight” to the suburbs from many others. A lawsuit, Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, challenged the state’s school board to acknowledge segregation in the education system. It wasn’t until 1976 that Judge John Reynolds ordered the city to desegregate public schools. Talk of private school vouchers, which began in some parts of the country immediately after the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision desegregating public schools, took hold in Wisconsin.

The aim of the MPCP in the early 1990s, according to supporters, was to improve overall student academic achievement by closing the education quality gap between city and suburban schools. However, the private school system does not serve the communities it was meant to assist. Black and low-income students were most likely to leave the voucher system or perform poorly in state exams, according to a 2006-2012 investigation published in the American Educational Research Journal.

A team of scholars tracked pupils who left the program for four years.

“Our team found in Milwaukee that those kids did better. Once they went back to the public school, even though they were more likely to go to some of the lower graded or lower scoring public schools in the area, those schools were just better able to serve those students,” said Cowen.

The 20% of students who returned to public schools performed better on standardized tests, demonstrating that voucher schools do not provide a long-term solution for helping disadvantaged kids. Although the academic nonsuccess of private intuitions are not entirely to blame for racial inequalities, the schools are not helping the task of reducing the great socioeconomic disparity for people of color.

“So the conclusion is vouchers don’t do a good job, even when they target a population of particularly at-risk students, maintaining the poorest of the poor or the most at risk academically. It takes a lot of extra work for families to continue to stay enrolled in private schools, even if the state is picking up the tab for the tuition piece,” said Cowen.

Discrimination in the voucher school system

Voucher institutions have been accused of “cream skimming,” a term used for the act of pushing out students that are low achieving and more challenging to teach. A 2023 study found the practice to be false from an enrollment standpoint, but schools have been found to push out lowest achieving students at higher rates.

Voucher institutions are not required to protect the rights of students. The system has faced controversy for discriminating against LGBTQ+ identifying students and pupils with disabilities. The majority of students who attend voucher schools are white, and four-fifths of voucher students have never attended public school—meaning Wisconsin taxpayers are subsidizing costs for many families who have already demonstrated they can afford to send their children to private schools.

What’s next for voucher schools

In the next school year, state per-pupil aid for voucher school students will rise to $10,237 for grades K-8 and $12,731 for grades 9-12, the highest voucher amounts yet. Wisconsin private schools received more public funding during the past two years than ever before despite the fair amount of research available that shows the schools don’t have a significant impact on a students academic performance.

Meanwhile public schools have lost funding per pupil aid, as legislators have failed for 16 years to keep up with growing costs for school districts. The schools are struggling with declining numbers of pupil enrollment—which reduces per-pupil aid—and staff retention. As a result, more school districts are forced to apply for referendums, asking local residents to vote to raise their own property taxes, to make up for the Legislature’s deficiency to pay for its share of students’ much-needed resources. In 2021, schools applied for a record number of 166 referendums. So far in 2024, there have been more than 100; and while a 60% approval rate sounds positive, that figure has been steadily falling since a 90% peak in 2018.

“It does pose the question, what exactly are the goals of these programs? Are we trying to increase academic performance for students that use vouchers? Are we trying to increase academic performance for a city or a state as a whole? Or are we just saying that choice for the sake of choice is good? I’m not sure that there’s agreement on what the ultimate goals are of these types of programs,” said Ford.

Author

  • Yesica Balderrama

    Yesica Balderrama is a bilingual journalist based in New York City. Her written work has been published in The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times en Español, NPR, WNYC, Yes! Magazine and others.

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