School Choice Expansion in Milwaukee, Racine, and Green Bay Stands to Lift the Tides of Education in Eastern Wisconsin

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

New school choice measures will bring Wisconsin students unprecedented access to quality schools in 2011. This includes students in Milwaukee, Racine, and Green Bay – and schools throughout the Badger State.

The Joint Finance Committee passed the latest version of the state budget on to the Assembly late Friday night, and it includes four major developments for students across eastern Wisconsin. The committee voted to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, America’s first modern school choice program.

This legislation allows students in Milwaukee greater access to school vouchers while allowing students in Racine and Green Bay the opportunity to attend a wide range of educational institutions regardless of their location. As a result, Wisconsin looks poised to regain its status as a nationwide leader in education reform.

The four major changes are:

  1. The expansion of the existing Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. This will remove the cap on students receiving vouchers (22,500 in 2011), as well as raise the income limit for families looking to apply for scholarships to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For a family of four, this will be approximately $67,000 – a welcoming cap in a city where the median family income was just $37,879. This will provide unprecedented access to a variety of schools for students and families in Wisconsin’s largest city. The maximum amount of a voucher is $6,442.
  2. The addition of Racine to the state’s voucher program. Racine, the state’s fifth largest city, will have its public school students eligible for vouchers in 2011. Families within city limits would be eligible for vouchers if they meet the 300% FPL income ceiling. In the program’s first year (2011-2012), enrollment will be capped at 250 students. This will increase to 500 students in year two, and then go uncapped in year three and beyond.

    Racine is facing several of the same education problems that Milwaukee is. The district has a student suspension rate that is over twice the state average, and a dropout rate that nearly triples Wisconsin’s mark. In 2010, only 53 percent of Racine tenth-graders scored “Proficient” or above on statewide testing. The statewide average was 21.7 percent higher.

  3. The potential addition of a voucher system in Green Bay. Green Bay had been left out of the discussion on Thursday, but Friday’s JFC session included the city in the state’s voucher expansion – if local parents want it. The Parental Choice Program will expand to Green Bay if 5,143 residents – or 25 percent of the city’s student population – sign a petition in favor of bringing vouchers to the state’s third largest city.

    If the petition garners enough signatures, the voucher plan will be implemented in the same way as in the proposed Racine expansion. The program will be capped at 250 students in 2011-2012 and 500 in 2012-2013 before removing its participation cap. It will share the same income limits as the programs in Milwaukee and Racine.

  4. The removal of any geographic limitation in determining which schools can accept voucher students. As a result, every private school in Wisconsin will be eligible to accept vouchers, regardless of their location. Students in Milwaukee, Racine, or Green Bay would be able to use their $6,442 vouchers to attend any Wisconsin school of their choice, provided that the school has been approved by the state to enroll these students.

Combined, these four improvements constitute the biggest growth of school choice that Wisconsin has ever seen. Student extensions to Racine and Green Bay, coupled with school expansions with no geographic restrictions, will bring the state’s voucher program to more students than ever before. If successful, it could be an early step towards a statewide universal choice program that could serve students from Superior to Whitewater.

Most importantly, the program will expand the MPCP, a program that has proven to graduate more students than traditional public schools while costing Wisconsin’s taxpayers less to educate. Problems inhabit Milwaukee’s classrooms, and while vouchers haven’t been a panacea to fix these issues, they have had a significant positive impact on the city’s students.

The latest iteration of the School Choice Demonstration Project, a non-partisan, state-funded group contracted to gauge the impact of vouchers, found no significant negative effects from the program on students in public or private schools. What they did find, however, was that the city’s voucher system raised graduation rates for participants while saving over $40 million in education costs for 2010 alone.

Public schools in the city, shielded by a lack of accountability (MPS per-student funding has increased by 67% since 1990) haven’t responded as many anticipated they would have in 1990, but other positive steps have taken shape in Brew City. Open enrollment and charter school attendance have both increased significantly within city limits thanks in part to pressure on MPS to provide more options. As a result, more than 75 percent of students in Milwaukee attended schools other than their traditional neighborhood public school in 2009.

If the program’s expansion can have a similar impact in Green Bay and Racine, it will mean more high school graduates in cities that have struggled in the midst of a new generation of education. The removal of geographic limits on participating schools will go even farther to make sure that parents have the best options available for their children. This legislation will strengthen the state of education – both public and private – in Wisconsin.

When parents can choose between schools, schools are forced to compete with each other. When schools compete, they improve. A greater influence of competition will provide a rising tide in the state’s largest cities – one that stands to raise all ships up with it.

It means that students will have access to more schools, more styles of education, and more chances to develop as Wisconsinites than ever before. While there’s still work to be done just to make the state’s modest changes a reality, it’s a move in the right direction to create a strong generation of students and moving the Badger State forward.