Expanded voucher program poses threat to LEAs

Expanded voucher program poses threat to LEAs

(Wis.) Some of this state’s smallest and most rural school districts are likely to be burdened with the growing cost of an expanded voucher program approved by Wisconsin lawmakers in 2015, according to new research.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was established in 1989 as the nation’s first publicly-funded private school voucher program. Since then, lawmakers have gradually expanded its scope until two years ago when a cap on participating schools and students was allowed to increase to 2 percent of a district’s enrollment.

While the program was initially funded by the state’s general fund, the Legislature in 2015 also began deducting the costs of a student’s voucher from the base aid being provided by the state.

New analysis from the National Education Policy Center based in Colorado shows that already tens of millions of dollars is being shifted from public to private schools in many communities, and that amount is likely to escalate.

“The analysis finds that school districts could lose a substantial portion of their state aid as participation in the voucher  program grows, and that small districts would be the most negatively affected,” according to the report by Ellie Bruecker, doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She noted that while participation rates in the voucher program remain low and some students lack access to voucher schools, “the majority of students currently eligible to participate in the program live within range of a voucher school and that, even given low participation rates, the program will have a significant effect on the fiscal support the state provides to local school districts.”

While supporters of traditional public schools had hoped the fight over school vouchers ended nationally years ago, school choice has once again emerged into the spotlight thanks largely to President Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

DeVos, a well-known advocate for charter schools in her home state of Michigan, has also been a long-time advocate for school choice. In a visit to a private school earlier this year in Florida—which also has an active voucher program—DeVos said that a national program is being considered patterned after the state’s tax credit program.

But Bruecker argues that vouchers have not had the sort of positive impact on student performance that supporters have envisioned. Further, the notion that private schools offer competition to public schools also appears suspect, she said.

“Over nearly 25 years of study, numerous evaluations of the effectiveness of school vouchers have failed to produce convincing evidence of a positive impact on student achievement,” she said.

Bruecker said the Wisconsin program is also likely to create major financial headaches for some districts in the near future. She highlighted the status of three:

Waukesha Public School District is a small-city district in south central Wisconsin serving approximately 13,000 students. Currently, six private schools within the city accept vouchers. In 2016-17, 109 students, representing less than 1 percent of district students, participated in the state voucher program–a cost of $826,631, or 1.3 percent, of the district's 2016-17 total state aid.

While the program’s impact today is modest, if the legislature raises the eligibility limit to $53,460 for a family of four, participation rates in Waukesha will likely increase, given that the median family income for Waukesha is $62,867.

 

Green Bay Area Public School District is located in northeastern Wisconsin. Last year, Green Bay had the second largest number of students participating in the voucher program with 22,338 enrolled. Green Bay's participation rate is also likely to grow because district had 88 students on the waiting list for vouchers in 2016-17. This is more than double the number of students on the next longest waiting list and, because of changes in state law, all will be eligible next year. The district also has a very high percentage of students eligible for vouchers, about 62 percent.

Reedsville School District is a rural district in eastern Wisconsin. With five private voucher schools within 15 miles, Reedsville is representative of the type of rural public school district that is at perhaps the greatest fiscal risk from the voucher program, she said. With just eight incoming students using vouchers last year, Reedsville lost more than $62,000, or 2 percent of its state aid. Since its median household income is $54,545, the expected income eligibility increase would permit nearly half of the district's families to access vouchers.