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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

Issue of the Week: Conservative Voucher School Experiment Is a Failure

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The newest voucher school study from the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum (PPF) confirms what we've known for years: Students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) aren't performing any better than their peers in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

So why do Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans support voucher schools without question? When a program fails after numerous attempts to fix it, it should be eliminated.

Perhaps it's because voucher schools allow taxpayers to underwrite the tuition of students in private—and typically religious—schools without adequate oversight.

Last year, Walker expanded the program so that MPCP students could attend any private school in the state; income requirements were relaxed so that a four-member family with an income of $67,050 would be eligible; and Racine students are now allowed to participate. (Unfortunately, Milwaukee's funding flaw continues to penalize city taxpayers.) As a result of these changes, voucher participation has jumped 12%. The total cost to state taxpayers is $150.9 million.

But are the 23,426 voucher students—and state taxpayers—getting a good return on their investment?

The PPF's report indicates that the answer is no.

"At no grade level did voucher students, on the whole, out-perform MPS students in either reading or math," the Forum found.

And that jump in enrollment? That isn't due to new students enrolling in private schools because concerned parents are making an informed choice to send their kids to a better school. Rather, students who were already attending these private schools became eligible for taxpayer subsidies, thanks to the relaxed income requirements.

Voucher students aren't getting the benefits of integrated schools, either. PPF found that, in general, African-American students are primarily going to schools with a predominantly African-American student body; Hispanic students are being educated with other Hispanic students; and low-income students are going to schools populated by low-income students.

We also have to ask at what point these private schools become public schools. According to the PPF report, 82% of all students in MPCP-participating schools use vouchers. The PPF found that in 62 of the 114 participating schools, more than 90% of the student population used vouchers to pay for their tuition. Doesn't the heavy reliance on taxpayer vouchers make them public schools? Yet they are able to skirt state and federal requirements to serve meals, educate disabled children and be accountable to the public. In contrast, MPS is not allowed to turn away any child, no matter how difficult it is to provide him or her with a proper education.

Which brings us to accountability and transparency. In January, Walker said in his "State of the State" speech that he wanted all schools—including voucher and charter schools—to be evaluated according to the same standards. But the new education reform bill introduced in the state Legislature doesn't require voucher students to be tested. We can only assume that the voucher-supporting donors to Walker's recall defense campaign account forced him to flip-flop on this very public promise.

Wisconsin needs to wake up to this voucher school sham. Study after study shows that voucher students aren't performing better than their public school peers. Let's invest in programs that boost student achievement across the city and statewide, and not pour millions of taxpayer dollars into unaccountable private schools that aren't serving our children.

Heroes of the Week
: MSOE Student Volunteers

On Feb. 11, architectural engineering students from the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) constructed a rainwater collection system for Cream City Gardens, which grows produce for homeless citizens served by the Guest House of Milwaukee.

The Guest House of Milwaukee (1216 N. 13th St.) provides emergency shelter to homeless men. It also serves men, women and families through supportive housing programs. The Cream City Gardens project aims to teach skills and provide experiences that will make participants more desirable to employers.

"I'm happy to have a community partner like MSOE invested in the Cream City Gardens project," said Cindy Krahenbuhl, executive director of the Guest House of Milwaukee. "The rainwater collection system will not only conserve water and save energy, but it will also allow our Cream City Gardens project to grow, providing more produce for Guest House's homeless individuals."

Readers who wish to learn more about the Guest House are urged to visit www.guesthouseofmilwaukee.org.