MPS Board Puts Turf Protection Ahead of Meeting Kids’ Needs

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Frederick Douglass wrote in “Narrative of the Life of an African Slave” about how the wife of his owner started to teach Douglass how to read. Her husband found out and forbade her from teaching Douglass. “She now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better.”

I understand the desire of the teachers’ unions to keep a monopoly on education regardless of whether the children actually learn. But did they have to instruct the Milwaukee Public Schools’ school board so well on doing everything it could to deprive African American children an educational choice?

MPS is considering adding a line item to the annual property tax bills for Milwaukee residents. A proposal by school board member Larry Miller would create a separate line item for the estimated tax levy for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Calling the levy the “Voucher Tax,” the estimate tax levy would be $53.4 million for 2012, the amount MPS ‘spends’ to support the MPCP.

That sounds like a lot of money. However, before we start celebrating this new transparency on the tax bill, let’s put this into perspective.

The MPS Office of Accountability and Efficiency estimates the MPS property tax levy for 2011 at $293.5 million. Now, if you separate out the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the property tax levy is still $243.3 million, just a little bit less than the tax levy for the entire city of Milwaukee at $246.7 million.

Now we’re talking big bucks.

Let’s take a look at the numbers a little further. MPS spent $15,374 per student last year. The MPCP voucher is only $6,442 per student.

This has been a tremendous bargain for the state’s property tax payers.  As the MacIver Institute reported, the MPCP had a net benefit to the state of $46.7 million in 2010.

It gets better. While Milwaukee taxpayers did take a small hit in years past because of MPCP, they now see a net reduction in cost per student enrolled in MPCP of close to $1000.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee parents are increasingly resorting to some form of choice in education rather than choosing the neighborhood school that has let them down in the past. A MacIver Institute study shows nearly four out of five students in Milwaukee are enrolled in some sort of parental choice program in 2010-2011. Not only did 29,024 students choose private schools, another 17,453 students were in charter schools.

That’s a shocking indictment of what parents think of the much bigger educational line item on the property tax bill.

They have good reason to think that way, too. A study last year showed MPCP students that stay with the MPCP program for all four years have a 94% graduation rate.

Critics of school choice including Miller like to point out the graduation rate is actually lower for those that participate in the program but do not stay four years have a graduation rate of 76.6%. The moral of that story would be that parents should keep their kids in the MPCP program all four years.

Of course, even the 76.6% rate is still better than Milwaukee Public Schools’ graduation rate of 69.4%. Perhaps instead of listing the cost of MPCP on the tax bill, taxpayers should demand the costs of Milwaukee Public Schools’ horrible graduation rate.

For example, a recent study reported that in 2008, 37 percent of African American males who were high school dropouts were incarcerated at some point. Another study showed that 59% of federal prisoners are high school drop outs, 75% of the state prison inmates nationwide are drop outs. “For all young males, high school dropouts were 47 times more likely to be incarcerated than their similar aged peers who held a four year college degree,” according to Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Aside from prison, the societal costs of high school drop outs are enormous. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, if just 1,000 of Wisconsin’s high school drop outs had graduated from college, they would earn $10 million in additional earnings per year, increase the gross state product by $12 million and would generate an additional $1.2 million in state revenue.

While we’re at it, we can even throw in the cost of what MPS students are costing the state’s taxpayers if they do graduate and go on to college. Rose Fernandez, quoting statistics from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Assessment and Institutional Research, wrote recently about the unpreparedness for college of MPS graduates:

“Between 2004 and 2009, 69 percent of MPS graduates that enrolled at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee (UWM) required remedial courses before they could begin their post-secondary education. More troubling, fewer than 20 percent of MPS graduates who entered UWM between 1998 and 2003 earned diplomas within six years.”

We could also throw another line item on the bill, the tax levy necessary for Milwaukeeans to pay for teacher benefits they would not have had to pay if the school district had not signed a contract with the teachers on the eve of Governor Scott Walker taking office.

When MPS school board members like Miller try to scare the public with how much we’re spending on the MPCP, the reaction of most taxpayers should be to wonder why we’re not spending more.

Lost in the discussion of whether or not to create a separate line item on the property tax bill for the “Voucher Tax” is a fundamental point about the children enrolled in the MPCP. Those children are MPS students. If they were not enrolled in the MPCP, they would be back in the same MPS schools that Miller and his fellow board members run, unsuccessfully we may add. If MPS isn’t responsible for educating the children, then who is? Whose line item is it anyway?