By Rethinking Schools
With the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to take up school vouchers, the issue is gaining attention once again. And whenever the topic comes up, attention inevitably focuses on Milwaukee, the first city in the country where public tax dollars paid tution at private schools.
The Milwaukee program began in 1990 with approximately 300 children. It did not significantly expand until religious schools were allowed to participate in 1998.
In the 2001-2002 school year, 10,882 Milwaukee students are attending 107 private schools at public expense; roughly two-thirds of the children attend religious schools and the voucher is worth up to $5,553 per student.
Cleveland began a voucher program in 1995, and Florida started a small statewide program in 1999. The Cleveland program is the one being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Three key lessons are emerging from the Milwaukee experiment.
Lesson Number One: Voucher schools are not accountable to the public.
At the same time that demands for accountability and testing are increasing for public schools, private voucher schools get off scot free. The voucher schools argue that because they are private, they get to play by different rules than the public schools (even though some voucher schools do not have a single student privately paying tuition.) As a result, voucher schools do not have to provide any data on test scores or academic achievement - or even measure their students' progress if they don't want to. Nor do voucher schools have to release basic data such as the racial or gender breakdown of their students.
Because there is no true public oversight or accountability, no one really knows how the voucher schools are performing. As state report last year pointedly noted, "some hopes for the [voucher] program - most notably that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement - cannot be documented."
Private voucher schools are also allowed to circumvent basic constitutional protections such as free speech, due process, and equal protection. They also argue they are exempt from state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy, and marital or parental status.
Lesson Number Two: Vouchers divert money away from public schools.
The Milwaukee voucher program is costing $59.4 million in 2001-2002. Half of the funds come out of state school aid targetted for Milwaukee, and the other half comes out of state general purpose funds.
The Milwaukee schools are able to make up that lost state aid - but here's the catch. It is allowed to do so only by raising local property taxes. (This scheme was enacted by legislators who meanwhile complain about high taxes for public schools.) Furthermore, at the same time that public dollars are going to private voucher schools, the state has imposed spending limits on public schools. In the case of Milwaukee Public Schools, the spending limits led to more than $40 million in program cuts in the last two years.
Because of the complicated nature of Wisconsin's school funding formulas, it is difficult to completely assess the financial impact of vouchers - especially if you don't have a Ph.D. in finance. But this is the bottom line: there is a finite limit to taxpayer support for schools. When tax dollars go to private schools, it inevitably reduces the public's willigness to shoulder increased tax burdens to pay for public schools.
Lesson Number Three: Parents do not want to abandon the public schools - they want them to work better.
In much-watched school board elections in Milwaukee in the Spring of 2001, two pro-voucher candidates were decisively defeated by candidates who made support for public education a cornerstone of their campaigns.
Voucher advocates also suffered crushing blows in state referenda in November 2001, when voters in Michigan and California squashed voucher initiatives in those states. The results were the ninth and 10th straight defeat of statewide voucher initiatives since the 1970s. In fact, no state voucher initiative has ever won when put to the voters.
Advocates of school reform find themselves in a complicated position. On the one hand, we must continue to expose the problems in public schools and demand they provide a quality education to all children. On the other hand, we must defend the institution of public education as a public good and expose voucher plans for what they are - essential building blocks in a conservative agenda to privatize schools and remove them from public oversight and responsibility.
It's time that those seriously interested in education reform focus on proven programs such as improved teacher education, ongoing staff development, smaller classes, multicultural curricula, and adequate resources.
Vol. 15#4, Summer, 2001. Updated January 2002.