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.

How the Nation’s Two Oldest School Voucher Programs Are Working: Part I—Wisconsin

School voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are now over twenty-five years old.  Now both states have expanded statewide what began as stand-alone, big-city programs, and last week, local newspapers in Milwaukee and Cleveland examined these programs.  Today’s post will look at last week’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s report on Wisconsin vouchers; tomorrow’s will look at Patrick O’Donnell’s recent Plain Dealer report on vouchers in Cleveland and Ohio.

Underneath both of these reports are some realities. Wisconsin and Ohio are among the 25 states today where conservative Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. In both states, school vouchers have created a set of private schools that receive public tax dollars. Both voucher programs are relatively small compared to the public schools that serve the mass of each state’s children.

In the new exploration of Wisconsin vouchers, Erin Richards explains: While President Donald Trump is pitching to boost federal spending on school choice programs by $1.4 billion—a down payment on his promise of $20 billion—Wisconsin is already demonstrating the complexities of expanding private-school choice to exurban America. Now that private schools outside of densely populated Milwaukee and Racine can tap into voucher funding, new tensions are bubbling up between religious conservatives eager to offer more students a religious-based education and district advocates who fear losing resources to private schools now competing for the same pot of public dollars… To qualify for a voucher in the statewide program, students have to come from families earning no more than 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 for a family of four or about $52,000 if the parents are married. The income limit for Racine and Milwaukee programs is 300% of the federal poverty level.”

Milwaukee’s voucher program dates back to 1990: “Milwaukee hosts the country’s longest-running urban school voucher program.  For decades, Wisconsin’s outstate city and school leaders watched from a distance the constant opening and shuttering of private schools in the 27-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—and the battles over funding and accountability… Then in 2011, the GOP-led Legislature approved replicating the Milwaukee voucher program in Racine… Two years later, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a statewide expansion and a separate special-needs voucher program.”  “State law caps voucher-student enrollment at 2% of a district’s population this year, a figure that is rising 1% each subsequent year of the program—unless lawmakers act to lift the cap more quickly.”

Wisconsin’s statewide program also involves a required local school district tax assessment as a local contribution to each voucher. In an FAQ published before the current statewide program was passed in 2013, the Wisconsin School Boards Association explained how the breakdown of state-local contributions would be likely to work: “Under current law, the state pays 61.6 percent of the total cost of the voucher (or about $3,969 per voucher student) directly. The remaining 38.4 percent of the voucher (or about $2,474 per voucher student) is paid by the school district in which a voucher program is located (currently either Milwaukee Public Schools or Racine Unified) through a reduction in its general equalization aid entitlement each year. The proposed budget would continue this model as the funding mechanism for voucher expansion.”

Describing the statewide program in operation today, Richards adds that, “Starting last year, state law called for districts to raise taxes to pay for local students using vouchers—whether they were already enrolled in a private school or not.  The cost shows up on a homeowner’s property tax bill as part of the public school levy… There’s no separate line item telling taxpayers the cost of the voucher program in their district.”  The voucher millage is in essence a hidden local tax assessment.

Richards describes the operation of the voucher program in the small, 2000-student, Waupun Area School District, where residents were taxed for 18 students attending a local Christian school, 17 of them already students at the private school when they were awarded a voucher. Waupun’s public school superintendent explains that the Christian school received $148,000 in tax dollars last year and worries about what will happen if the voucher program grows: “I don’t want public schools to be seen as the dumping ground as we get years down the road with vouchers… Like, if you have special needs or mental health problems, you come here but all the elite kids get to go to the private school.”

Richards summarizes the concerns of school superintendents across Wisconsin as the program expands; “Some public school administrators worry about the future of their own resources as the cap on the number of local students who can use vouchers rises… Many public-school leaders philosophically oppose the idea of taxpayers paying for religious education, especially without the same accountability.”

Richards describes tension at a Lutheran church in Watertown, a city between Milwaukee and Madison with 12 religious schools. At Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, despite that a church member who is a former public school principal organized a protest when the church’s parochial school sought to join the voucher program, church members voted overwhelmingly to have their school begin accepting vouchers: “Good Shepherd received approximately $70,000 in additional revenue last year for 11 children who qualified for the subsidies. All but three were already enrolled in the private school….”

Richards also describes a Catholic school in Chilton that recently joined the voucher program. Enrollment had dropped from 140 to only 83 students and there is hope that the vouchers will save the school.  Last month in an earlier article in the Journal Sentinel‘s series on vouchers, Richards reported on a study of the role of vouchers for keeping open Catholic schools: “The study concludes that vouchers are the dominant source of funding for many parishes and greatly reduced the likelihood of them closing or merging.”

Richards’ report centers on the fiscal implications of vouchers—whether Wisconsin’s state education budget ought to be supporting parochial school tuition—especially for students who already attend religious schools and have never been enrolled in a public school—and whether it is the responsibility of local tax payers to levy millage that may build enrollment in private religious schools at the expense of addressing the needs of the mass of children enrolled in public schools.

For additional recent in-depth coverage of Milwaukee vouchers, check out Erin Richards’ piece in the winter, 2017 American Prospect, and Barbara Miner’s February commentary in the Los Angeles Times

Wisconsin Republican Compromise Ups State Ed Budget, Then Steals the Money for Vouchers

Wisconsin, led by extreme-right Governor Scott Walker, demonstrates how one party state government can execute a compromise.  In February, Walker proposed cutting $127 million out of the budget for K-12 public education.  Last week the Republican dominated state legislature put back a good part of that money.  Then the legislature re-directed much of it away from public education to private and parochial schools.

Here is how Jessie Opoien of the Capital Times describes what happened: “The co-chairs of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee said on Tuesday its Republican members have reached an agreement to provide an additional $200 million for K-12 education than what Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his two-year budget.  The funds will restore a $127 million cut next year that was proposed in Walker’s budget, and will provide an additional $100 per pupil in state aid the following year.”

Except here’s the catch, according to Wisconsin Public Radio: “Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee filled Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed cut to public schools… but they also changed the way the state pays for school vouchers.  From now on, public and private voucher schools will both be competing for the same pot of money.  In the first year of the budget, that means voucher schools will get $18 million more while public schools get $18 million less.”

An Associated Press report explains the details.  The plan would lift a 1,000 student cap statewide on the number of vouchers and let any public school student apply.  Students in grades K-8 would receive $7,210 from their local school district to attend a voucher school.  School districts would have to provide $7,856 for any high school student.  In the 2014-2015 school year more than 3,500 students applied for a voucher, indicating that the new legislation would rapidly expand school choice beyond the current 1,000 student cap.  Like other states with voucher programs, Wisconsin does not require a student to have been enrolled in a public school  before applying for a voucher.  This means that students already enrolled in private and parochial schools could qualify for public funds to underwrite their private school education.

Ruth Conniff of The Progressive enumerates the provisions that will expand privatization across Wisconsin:

  • “A much-touted ‘restoration’ of school funding cuts proposed by Governor Walker, but, at the same time, a statewide voucher expansion which will direct much of that funding to private schools.
  • “Special needs vouchers for disabled children….
  • “Apples-and-oranges testing requirements that hold charter and voucher schools to a different assessment standard than regular public schools.
  • “A provision allowing teachers to become licensed based on work experience if they hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • “A phased-in takeover of high-poverty, low-performing Milwaukee public schools.”

Conniff adds that what is proposed for Milwaukee is a sort of Recovery School District like the one in New Orleans. It would take over so-called failing schools and very likely lead to closing schools and firing teachers.

Democratic members of Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee proposed their own plan that would have invested in public education, but the final vote was along party lines. Because Republicans are in the majority in both legislative chambers, their proposal won.