Status of School Vouchers—30 Years After Milwaukee Vouchers and 25 Years After Cleveland Vouchers Began

Milwaukee, the oldest publicly funded, private school voucher program in the United States just marked its 30th anniversary. Wisconsin vouchers have been a model for voucher expansion all over the country, which makes this a good time to review the impact of the growth of diversion of tax dollars to cover private school costs.

In a two part review for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School reflects on the operation and public policy impact of the now 30-year-old Milwaukee voucher program, and more generally on the implications of the growing use of school vouchers.

Borsuk begins by noting that in Wisconsin, vouchers are now so old they have lost some of their luster. He believes the public ought to be watching more closely: “In Wisconsin, the sector wars between public school people and school choice people are kind of old hat. The hottest cup of coffee served in the last generation of education around here seems lukewarm now. But that is also a good reason to re-cap the impact of providing public support for thousands of children to attend private and religious schools….”

Based on his study of the Milwaukee voucher program over its 30 year history, Borsuk offers 10 primarily descriptive observations:

  1. “The voucher movement is big. It started out in Fall 1991 with 337 students in seven schools… By last fall, about 28,000 children, around a quarter of all Milwaukee children receiving publicly funded education, were going to about 115 private schools.”
  2. “It really is school choice… (N)o one has ever been required or assigned to use a voucher to go to a private school… Thousands of parents want their kids to attend private and, most cases, religious schools, and vouchers make that possible.”
  3. “Vouchers haven’t solved the success gaps in education.  One of the primary claims of voucher supporters… was that giving parents more freedom to choose schools, coupled with competition among schools… would drive big improvements in overall academic success…. Nope. Overall, the reading and math scores of students using vouchers aren’t much different than students in Milwaukee Public Schools—and proficiency rates in both streams of schools have been generally unchanged… at depressingly low levels. Whatever is needed to… start up booming academic achievement, vouchers aren’t it.”
  4. “Vouchers have impacted Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) negatively… (O)verall, in large part due to voucher use and charter enrollment, enrollment in MPS has fallen steadily for more than a decade, and that is not good for the system… Also, MPS has a higher percentage of students with special needs and students who have chronic behavior problems than schools in other sectors have.”
  5. “The voucher movement is religious… (F)or the last five years, more than $200 million a year in state money has been spent on vouchers, the strong majority of it at religious schools. Those schools cover a wide range of religions—Catholic, Lutheran, other Christian denominations, Muslim, Jewish—and there are almost no limits on how religion is taught or practiced in those schools.  Both Wisconsin and U.S. supreme courts have ruled it is not a violation of separation of church and state, on the theory that the state is supporting parents choosing schools and not the state choosing schools.”
  6. “Milwaukee taught the country. One important lesson was how not to do vouchers… People with limited or dubious qualifications opened schools… Some schools were outrageously bad.  Many were just mediocre and poorly run.  It was only by launching regulations and creating some oversight that bad financial practices and… bad educational practice was reined in and many schools closed.”
  7. “School choice movement is stable. In the 2010s, it seemed like every two years, when the state budget was developed, big changes were made…. Voucher programs were added for Racine, for the rest of Wisconsin, and for students with special needs… Now, especially with split control of state government, nothing is changing.”
  8. “Vouchers keep private schools going… At many private schools, more than 90%  of students are supported by vouchers of more than $8,000 per student per year… Milwaukee has a much more vibrant private school sector than many comparable cities.  Is this a public good?…  (S)aying vouchers are keeping the private school sector going is stating a fact.”
  9. “Vouchers fractured education politics… The intense battles between public school people… and voucher people meant there wasn’t a united front in responding to the needs of all the children in the city.  The division and divisiveness remain….”
  10. “The voucher school roster has improved… (T)he closing of many of the poorest schools has moved the overall record of private schools in a positive direction.”

Borsuk’s analysis presents a pretty objective analysis of many aspects of Wisconsin vouchers, but he entirely fails to address what across many states is the most serious concern: vouchers eat up a huge and growing portion of state education funding in Wisconsin and other states where voucher programs have grown over the years. Borsuk points out that the Milwaukee school district’s loss of students has been bad for the public schools.  What he doesn’t mention is that as students leave for private schools, in some states they carry the voucher funding out of their local school district’s budget.  But even when the state pays directly for the cost of the voucher, the school district loses the voucher student’s per-pupil state funding, and because many school district costs are fixed, the district loses funds needed for programming for the majority of a community’s students—the children enrolled in the public schools.

While Borsuk doesn’t mention the fiscal impact on public schools of the growth of vouchers across his state, in a 2017 brief from the National Education Policy Center, the University of Wisconsin’s Ellie Bruecker does evaluate the fiscal impact of Wisconsin’s vouchers on the state’s public schools:  “The program as currently structured appears likely to exacerbate existing inequities in state school financing. Taxpayers in many communities will be burdened with higher tax costs without seeing that burden translate into more spending on students attending local public schools. Moreover, the relative amount of money the state allocates to each public school student it supports is likely to decline. As more states enact or expand voucher programs, the case of Wisconsin offers a cautionary tale. Statewide voucher programs have the potential to seriously exacerbate funding disparities in the public system.”

Additionally voucher programs educate the few at the expense of the millions of children who continue to be enrolled in the public schools which lose the funding. For the Phi Delta Kappan, Mark Berends explains that today, while they are expensive, voucher programs serve relatively few students: “The number of school voucher programs has increased dramatically over the last two-decades. In 2000, there were just five such programs in operation in school districts and states… by 2010, the number had increased to 12, and by 2021, it had climbed to 29… (T)he number of students participating in voucher programs… has increased significantly in the last decade, though the total number of students receiving vouchers remains a tiny fraction of the total number of students in the U.S. (about 0.5%).” (Emphasis is mine.)

And while the voucher program in Wisconsin may have reached a stable plateau, in Ohio, like many other states, legislatures are making big new investments in private school vouchers.  Writing for the Columbus Dispatch, Anna Staver and Grace Deng report: “School choice advocates say… they want Ohio and eventually the country to give a voucher to any kid who wants one. ‘People are cutting their cable and buying individual channels and personalizing what they want for their own entertainment,’ said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the… Buckeye Institute. ‘It’s about choice. It’s about empowering folks. People want choice in their food, in their entertainment. Education should be that too.'”

Staver and Deng summarize the history of the recent rapid expansion of these programs, “(T)he rules that govern eligibility get a little more expansive every year.  At first, only students assigned to schools in ‘academic emergency’—the state’s lowest rating—for three consecutive years could apply for a voucher. A year later it became schools in either academic emergency or academic watch for three years.  Six months after that, the requirement dropped to two of the last three years. In 2013, lawmakers created an income-based scholarship for all kids regardless of their home district… Today, roughly half of Ohio’s families are eligible for an income-based voucher because the limit for a family of four (is) $65,500 of annual household income.”

In the state budget passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature raised the size of each voucher in another program, EdChoice, from $4,650 for students in grades K-8 to $5,500 and for students in high school from $6,000 to $7,500. Previously only 60,000 students could qualify for EdChoice statewide, but in the new budget, the Legislature eliminated any cap on the program’s size  While there used to be a 75 day window for submitting an application for an EdChoice voucher, there is now a rolling window with no closing date.  And beginning with the FY 26 school year students will no longer be required to attend a public school in the year prior to qualifying for a voucher. Today high school students need not attend a public school in the year before qualifying, but as of 2026, no student will need to have attended a public school prior to qualifying.

In Ohio, it never seems to stop. Last Wednesday members of the Ohio House held a press conference to promote House Bill 290, introduced last spring as what its sponsor is reported to have called “a legislative intent bill” for the purpose of promoting widespread discussion of universal vouchers.

The Dispatch’s Anna Staver covered last week’s press conference: “It’s called the backpack scholarship program, and it would direct the state treasurer to create ‘education savings accounts’ for any student who wanted one starting in the summer of 2023. The accounts would be filled with either $5,500 (K-8 grade) or $7,500 (9-12 grade) in state dollars annually and could be used to pay for things like private school tuition, homeschool supplies, after-school care, advanced placement testing fees or educational therapies.”

It doesn’t look as though there is any possibility this bill can quickly move through the legislature because its cost would be prohibitive. In May, two professors at Miami University of Ohio, Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joel Malin entirely dismissed the idea that such a law is likely to be enacted—even by Ohio’s far-right legislature: “(N)either Ohio, nor any other state, can afford to adequately fund education across both public and private sectors. The cost of this model, if the intent is truly to foster high-quality education, would be prohibitively expensive.”

Ohio’s experiment with vouchers is now 25 years old.  The Cleveland Voucher program began only only five years after Milwaukee’s. While Alan Borsuk believes growth in Wisconsin’s program may have peaked, it is clear that voucher expansion still has active and enthusiastic support in Ohio. Public education advocates are worried. That is why a sizeable number of Ohio school districts soon plan to file a lawsuit (see here and here) challenging vouchers under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution.

The Same People Now Trying to Undermine Democratic Elections Have Been Trying for 30 Years to Privatize Public Schools

The players are the very same. For decades they’ve been coming for our public schools. Now they are coming for the democratic process itself by trying to undermine fair elections.

Jane Mayer’s article in the July 9, 2021 New Yorker, The Big Money Behind the Big Lie, begins: “Trump’s attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich conservatives determined to win at all costs.” Mayer uncovers the players behind the Arizona Senate’s demand for an audit of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County. They include the very same people who have worked systematically over the past 30 years to privatize and undermine our American system of public education.

On the significance of this year’s election audit in Phoenix—an election audit conducted by a questionable private contractor—Mayer quotes Ralph Neas, who formerly led the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and later People for the American Way: “The Maricopa County audit exposes exactly what the Big Lie is all about. If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states furthering more chaos. That will enable new legislation. Millions of Americans could be disenfranchised….”

Mayer continues: “Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud., and… they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”

Mayer names some of the organizations involved in the attack on the integrity of last year’s election: the Heritage Foundation; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a corporate funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislatures; the Federalist Society; the Judicial Education Project, “which has rebranded itself as the Honest Election Project”; and FreedomWorks. Here is what all these groups have in common: “They have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules…. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years.”

What is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and where might we have heard of these people before? Mayer provides some history: “The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence. It has funded conservative projects ranging from school-choice initiatives to the controversial scholarship of Charles Murray, the co-author of the 1994 book, The Bell Curve.”

A long time ago, in the early 1990s, the Bradley Foundation was a major force behind the first school vouchers in the United States—in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bradley Foundation funded the state’s defense against a legal challenge to the program and also paid for mounting an enormous public relations campaign behind school vouchers. In 2003, People for the American Way explored the sudden appearance of a new advocacy group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO): “BAEO seemed to come out of nowhere with a series of compelling television ads featuring African-American parents talking about the importance of school choice… BAEO bills itself as a coalition of up-and-coming leaders working within the African American community.  But a closer look shows that BAEO has been bankrolled by a small number of right-wing foundations… It is not surprising that BAEO is headquartered in Milwaukee. Wisconsin has been the linchpin of the voucher movement for over a decade and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation has been at the center of the action…  The Bradley Foundation played a key role when the Milwaukee voucher program came under legal challenge for violating the separation of church and state… Bradley gave the state of Wisconsin $350,000 to pay for the work that Kenneth Starr… and his firm… did to defend the voucher program before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

In a 2017 investigation for Madison Wisconsin’s Cap Times, Mary Bottari comments on the outrageous irony that the Bradley Foundation, despite its history of giving to far-right political causes, continues to be designated by the IRS as a charitable nonprofit: “The Bradley Foundation, organized as a tax-exempt ‘charitable’ foundation under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, appears to be pursuing a highly partisan game plan: funding an ‘infrastructure’ on the right that benefits the Republican Party, while at the same time attempting to crush supporters of the Democratic Party.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council is another of the major players Jane Mayer identifies behind today’s outrageous attack on the authenticity of the 2020 election. The Center for Media and Democracy lists ALEC as a regular and significant recipient of operating grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Common Cause has had a long running whistle-blower complaint lodged against ALEC because, while it is also identified for tax purposes by the IRS as a “charitable” nonprofit, ALEC is a bill mill with a long history of churning out model school voucher bills along with other far-right projects. ALEC’s Education Task Force regularly drafts and circulates model school privatization bills, which are written as templates to be introduced in any state legislature after state-specific details are inserted.

The Center for Media and Democracy traces ALEC’s direct involvement in 1990 with the birth of the Milwaukee school voucher program: “Decades ago, ALEC targeted Wisconsin as a test case for their agenda. Tommy Thompson, who served as a state legislator from 1966-1987 and then as governor for a record 14 years, was an early ALEC member and supporter… It is now apparent that Thompson was the enthusiastic frontman for a slew of ALEC ideas and legislation — most famously ‘Welfare to Work’ and ‘School Choice.’ In 1990, Milwaukee’s school voucher program for low-income children was the first in the nation, the camel’s nose under the tent for a long-term agenda with the ultimate goal being the privatization of public schools.”

In this week’s New Yorker piece, Jane Mayer mentions another player in this year’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election through the right-wing Maricopa County election audit: Shawnna Bolick.  Bolick is currently an Arizona state representative from Phoenix; she is also running for Arizona secretary of state.  Although Mayor doesn’t trace this history, Shawnna Bolick has family ties to the far-right promotion of school vouchers back in the 1990s.

Mayer leaves out the story of Shawnna Bolick’s husband, Clint Bolick.  In May of 2000, PBS Frontline produced a special on The Battle Over School Choice, which featured an interview with Clint Bolick, along with this introduction: “Bolick is a co-founder and Director of Litigation for the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice, begun in 1991 as the ‘nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm’ and as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Institute for Justice represents parents and children in various legal cases across the country in support of school choice, including the Cleveland, Ohio lawsuit regarding a publicly funded scholarship program.”

In the interview, Clint Bolick explains: “We have been involved in the school choice battle since we opened our doors in 1991…. The very first court battle was in the spring of 1990, when the first school choice program was passed in Milwaukee. It was a tiny program that evoked a tremendous response from the educational bureaucracy, in the form of a lawsuit and an onslaught of regulations. We represented the parents and children defending the program and challenging the regulations.  And on the first day of school in the year 1990, we were successful.”

In that interview in 2000, Clint Bolick speculated that a case to overturn the “Cleveland Scholarship” voucher program would rise to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the spring of 2002, Bolick served as chief litigator in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, defending Ohio’s right to spend tax dollars for tuition vouchers to be used in private schools that include religious education. He argued that, “as long as a program gives parents the choice of where to send their kids and does not create any sort of financial incentive for them to do so,” vouchers do not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.  In June of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of allowing the Cleveland Scholarship Plan to proceed.

Now in 2021, Shawnna Bolick, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation—along with many of the groups who have been recipients of Bradley Foundation grants—are working to undermine the democratic process itself by attacking what courts have already declared  to be a fair election in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Jane Mayor describes the troubling role of dark money: “It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries.”

In his history of the American battle over protecting the right to public education, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black describes the fall of Reconstruction after 1876 as the period when states across the former Confederacy attacked the two institutions essential for democracy:  “The new constitutional agenda was two-pronged: disenfranchise black voters and segregate and underfund public schools.” (p. 139)  For the past three decades, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, ALEC, The Institute for Justice and their allies have been pursuing a similar attack on the same two institutions—the right to vote and the public schools that prepare children to become citizens—which the Founders understand as an essential foundation for democracy.