Should We Use Public Dollars for Private Schools?

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Jun 1, 2011 1 Comment ›› admin

June 1, 2011

“Can you tell me what’s happening with ‘voucher’ schools?” the woman asked at a recent Trempealeau County Town Hall meeting. Another added, “What’s a ‘voucher’ school?”

A ‘voucher’ is like a coupon. The state sends money from the aid given to the local school district (in this case Milwaukee) to a parent who uses the money to pay for private school tuition.

Many people in Town Hall meetings across western Wisconsin asked me about ‘vouchers’. This approach to education has been in place for years in the Milwaukee area.

But talk of expanding the program coupled with cuts to our local schools suddenly made ‘vouchers’ more relevant to those of us on Wisconsin’s West Coast.

Low income parents in Milwaukee have a ‘choice’ to send their children to public school (MPS) or to private school with a ‘voucher’ or coupon worth $6,442. The private school accepts the ‘voucher’ as payment for tuition. The money is taxpayer dollars and comes from the state aid allocation given to Milwaukee for educating students.

Governor Tommy Thompson, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, city business leaders and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation all supported the creation of the program in 1990 as a way to help low income students achieve and encourage MPS to improve by creating ‘competition’.

The Choice or voucher school program is limited to 22,500 students who must all live in Milwaukee. Only students whose parents make under an income threshold ($39,630 for a family of four) may enter a private school with a voucher. The student may not remain in the school at taxpayers’ expense if the family income grows to more than $49,919 a year.

The program has always been limited to Milwaukee and to low income students until now.

Nestled in the Governor’s budget and in separate bills are proposed changes to voucher schools. The limit on the number of students able to participate is removed which could devastate the Milwaukee Public School System.  The income eligibility requirement is removed allowing wealthy families to use vouchers.

If a family makes over $73,000 a year, the school could also charge the family tuition. The $6,442 taxpayer voucher would serve as a coupon to lower the tuition.

Schools outside of the city of Milwaukee would be eligible to participate – the budget bill would expand the program to Milwaukee County. The Governor also talked of expanding the program to Beloit, Racine, Fond du Lac and Green Bay.

The proposed changes to voucher schools include removing a requirement that all students receive the state standard test. Voucher schools themselves could choose the test they want.

The expansion of the voucher program comes at a time when school districts across the state are cutting programs, increasing class size and cutting staff.

This week State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, in a written statement, shared his concern about expansion of the voucher program.  He shared data showing that voucher students do not out-perform Milwaukee Public School students.

Recent results from the long term independent study of student performance shows that both private and public school students have significantly lower test scores than the state wide average. Both school types have similar reading scores. But MPS students do significantly better than private school students in mathematics.

State Superintendent Evers credits this progress to a special Student Achievement Grant supporting “rigorous, highly evaluated math teacher leader partnership with the UW Milwaukee”.  Mr. Evers noted this grant program is eliminated in the current state budget proposal.

His statement continued: “To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20-year-old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong”

The letter to Legislators concludes with a plea from the Superintendent to work collaboratively to improve the quality of all Milwaukee public schools and the achievement of all Wisconsin’s children.

I could not agree more.


  1. Joan Anderson says:

    Kathleen, How do you feel about vouchers for schools? I am concerned that there is no control over what is taught and money being taken from public schools. Are you going to run for governor? I was impressed with what I read about you for the recall election and would like to hear more about what you stand for. I hope you will run again! I am a retired RN and concerned about healthcare also. I’d like to see universal coverage and think Obamacare is at least a step to mend some of the healthcare problems. Good luck with whatever you do. Joan

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