More Milwaukee students enrolling in voucher program

The number of students enrolled in Milwaukee’s school voucher program increased 10 percent in the 2011-2012 school year, to 23,198 students, according to a recent report by the Public Policy Forum.

The report suggested possible factors contributing to the rise including a provision in the state budget that allows Milwaukee students to attend any private school in the state, the expansion of the voucher program to include all of Milwaukee County and the City of Racine and increased voucher eligibility to families of four.

In addition, once a student is eligible for a voucher, they remain eligible for following years even if the family’s income grows beyond the cap. Milwaukee’s voucher program is the oldest in the nation.

The forum’s report also found many of the new voucher students had actually already been enrolled in private schools.

“We looked at the total enrollment for each school voucher and non-voucher students,” said Jeff Schmidt, a Public Policy Forum researcher. “If they grew more (in) vouchers than enrollment, we assumed the students were already enrolled in private schools.”

Schmidt said it won’t be certain until next year how big of an impact the regulatory changes had on the enrollment spike.

Coinciding with the new regulatory changes, though, 2,202 additional students are using vouchers, each costing $6,442, which increases the program’s total cost by $14.2 million.

Marquette Educational Policy and Leadership associate professor Ellen Eckman said there are some issues with the new regulatory change.

“The difficulty is that (the regulatory changes) were never approved,” Eckman said. “The state is having trouble making these schools accountable. There is declining enrollment in public schools and it is difficult for taxpayers.”

Others, like Marquette political science associate professor John McAdams, said the expansion of the voucher program is ultimately a good thing for education in the state.

“There is pretty good evidence that competition makes public schools better,” McAdams said. “People aligned with public schools would rather have a monopoly. They’re like the American auto industry fighting Japanese imports decades ago. But now American cars are pretty good because of it.”

McAdams said vouchers provide an option for parents who see their kids struggling in public schools.

“(Voucher schools) tend to get students who are struggling because parents want to look somewhere else (besides public schools),” McAdams said.

Eckman disagreed with that mentality.

“They are both taxpayer-funded schools,” Eckman said. “You have one large group of schools scrutinized and another one that is not.”

The forum’s report showed that standardized test scores for the 2010-2011 school year, in which the first-year voucher schools were required to administer standardized tests, were lower among voucher schools than public schools. Data is not yet available for the 2011-2012 school year.