It might sound simplistic, but there’s a phrase for what happened to Milwaukee’s school choice program during the eight-year Doyle Administration. It got screwed.

How Governor Walker and the Legislature respond will be a major issue in budget deliberations this year.

Doyle’s assault

When Governor Doyle was elected in 2002, taxpayer support for schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was $5,783 per pupil.  While this was only 52% of the public support for the Milwaukee Public Schools, it was too much for Doyle and allies like Milwaukee Senator Lena Taylor.  They set out to starve the program, correctly believing that a fiscal tourniquet would constrain and eventually imperil it.

During the next eight years, taxpayer support for MPS pupils grew 36%, nearly twice the rate of inflation.  In the same period, public support for schools in the choice program rose only 11%, well below the rate of inflation.  Bottom line:  MPS got a real, inflation-adjusted increase while private parental choice schools took a real cut.

As a member of the Joint Finance Committee, Senator Taylor helped shepherd Doyle budgets through the Legislature.  She was front-and-center during deliberations on Doyle’s final budget that kneecapped MPCP schools with a cut in per pupil support.  By the time Doyle left office, funding for the choice program was only 42% of taxpayer support for MPS, down from 52% in 2002.

The dramatic disparity is further illustrated by the fact that MPS began the Doyle years with a sizable advantage in taxpayer support.

Academic Results

Despite efforts by Doyle, Taylor, and others to gut choice, students in the program do as well or better as their peers in MPS. 

Independent research by the country’s leading scholars in the field reached the following conclusions about comparable groups of choice and MPS students.

 

  • Students in the choice program graduated from high school and enrolled in college at higher rates.
  • Results from a new testing program in 2010 showed students in the choice program with significantly higher achievement gains.
  • Students in public Milwaukee charter schools that had converted from being private schools in the voucher program showed reading gains that were significantly higher than those of matched MPS students

 

Students in public Milwaukee charter schools that had converted from being private schools in the voucher program showed reading gains that were significantly higher than those of matched MPS students

While public school officials incessantly bemoan their supposed lack of financial support, the simple truth is that the choice program produces positive outcomes at a fraction of the cost.  Imagine what the innovative private school leaders could accomplish with more equitable funding.

Current Conditions

Per pupil support of the choice program was flat during the first two years of the Walker Administration.  This was an understandable by-product of successful efforts by Walker and the Legislature to get the state’s fiscal house in order.

But the time has come to reverse the effort by Doyle, Taylor, and others to suffocate schools in the choice program.

The situation is particularly dire at the high school level, where private choice schools rely on private philanthropy for more than 25% of their budget.  Schools serving students in grades K-8 need private donations for 15% of their costs. 

Parental demand for the program continues to grow while funding, in real dollars, has gone down.  It is unrealistic and short-sighted to expect low-cost, efficient schools to depend on the generosity of private donors to survive.  It is an unsustainable situation.  

Opponents of the choice program want to keep the noose as tight as possible around the necks of these schools.   Governor Walker and the Legislature should loosen it.