Education Reform

Jan Resseger: A Thirty-Year Overview of Vouchers, Which Started in Milwaukee

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Jan Resseger provides a useful and disturbing overview of vouchers, which began in 1991 in Milwaukee. The funder that inspired the Milwaukee voucher program, paid its legal costs, and kept it going while it was challenged in court was the rightwing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, led by Mike Joyce. When vouchers were launched thirty years ago, their promoters said they would “save” poor black children who were “trapped” in “failing public schools.” Five years later, Cleveland adopted its own voucher program. Vouchers have not been an academic success, as promised, but libertarians and conservatives continued to demand more vouchers and charters because choice is choice, even when it doesn’t produce the promised results. A while back, while doing research for a book, I interviewed Alan Borsuk, who has been writing about Milwaukee schools for years, and he gave me this summary: the three sectors–charters, vouchers, public–get about the same results, and the results are low for all three sectors (the public sector has a disproportionately large number of students with disabilities who are not wanted by the other two sectors). On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, black students in Milwaukee score at about the same level as their peers in poor, underfunded southern states.

Jan writes:

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 DispatchAnna 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.

Open the link and read the rest. The legislative strategy for vouchers is the camel’s nose under the tent. The first act is to provide vouchers for poor students trapped in failing schools, so there are income limits and requirements that students were enrolled in a low-performing school. In the second act, the income limit for eligible students is raised, or vouchers are enacted for students with special needs (even though these students abandon their federally-guaranteed rights when they leave public schools). Next step, students applying for vouchers need never have attended public schools, so they are not being “saved from failing schools” because they never attended public schools. The ultimate goal is universal vouchers, because choice may be academically ineffective but choice is good. In reality, as Jan points out, choice defunds the public schools that most students attend, so choice is not good after all.

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