School Choice Expansion Key to Wisconsin’s Re-emergence as Innovator

With the Republican takeover of state government this year, educational reformers have high hopes for change. The administration of Governor Jim Doyle did little to promote educational reform. Nowhere was that more evident in the state’s double failure to win Race to the Top federal funds when Wisconsin’s application failed to demonstrate movement in educational reform.

Doyle proposed a mayoral takeover of the struggling Milwaukee Public Schools after the federal Race to the Top funding competition was launched. The proposed mayoral takeover did not offer sufficient justification to win over opponents and the effort failed in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s two applications for federal Race to the Top funding did not even make the list of finalists. The main reason for the failures was the lack of teacher accountability for student performance.

Doyle’s other record on education is an obstacle to other reforms, especially when it comes to school choice.

Wisconsin was recognized nationally as an innovator in education with the creation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) in 1990. The program mainly serves students from low-income families. In order to be eligible to participate, the family income must be at or below 175% of the federal poverty level. After a child enters the MPCP, the family income may rise to 220% of the federal poverty level. In addition, siblings of students already using a voucher may also enter MPCP with a family income at the higher 220% threshold.

The Choice program gives the parent of each student a voucher to be used to pay tuition at a private school participating in the program. In 2009, the voucher could be worth as much as $ 6,442 per student.

The program is popular with parents in Milwaukee. It has grown from just 337 students when the program launched to 20,992 students in 2010.

However, when enrollment in the program was reaching a state-imposed cap of 15% of Milwaukee Public Schools enrollment, Doyle stood in the way of the legislature’s attempt to raise the cap. The State Department of Public Instruction actually began to draw up plans to ration enrollment in MPCP. Finally public pressure forced Doyle in 2006 to accept a raise in the enrollment cap. Today the enrollment cap for MPCP is at 22,500 students.

Expanding school choice is important if Wisconsin is to regain its national reputation as an innovator in education and improve educational quality. Studies have shown that private school voucher programs like MPCP have a positive effect on graduation rates. A study released in February of last year showed Choice students had an 18% higher graduation rate. Similar results, a 12% increased likelihood of graduating, were seen in Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program before that program was shut down.

These results are especially impressive when you consider the relative cost efficiency of the voucher program. Per student cost in the MPCP is less than half the cost per student in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Higher graduation rates are beneficial to the state’s bottom line, as a study by The MacIver Institute showed in 2009. The average high school dropout earned $10,000 less per year, meaning a potential loss of $121 million in tax revenue for Wisconsin. Because high school dropouts tend to be incarcerated more than those that do graduate, the state is possibly spending $154 million in incarceration costs more than if the graduation rate were 100%. Dropouts also are more likely to require Medicaid benefits, and consume an extra $120 million each year.

There are two different ideas for expanding school choice, which would help lift our children out of poverty and put Wisconsin back on the road to recovery. The first is the lifting of the enrollment caps in the MPCP program. It has shown to be a cost efficient way of increasing the graduation rates of Milwaukee’s students. Encouraging more parents to enroll their children in choice schools will help lift those children out of poverty.

The other proposed expansion of choice is to move it beyond Milwaukee to other communities. Under consideration for education vouchers are students in the Racine, Beloit and Green Bay school systems. Expanding the programs to those cities would be an important step to eventually expanding vouchers to every school district in the state.

Education is traditionally seen as an issue that favors Democrats because of their support from the teachers unions. However, the school choice program was created by a bi-partisan coalition of Milwaukee Democrats, Republicans in the legislature and Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. The promotion of educational innovation through the expansion of school choice can again be a bi-partisan effort if the current legislature is willing to act on it.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute