Milwaukee's Idolatrous Voucher Bill

Get out your ballots: the Thomas Fordham Foundation is hosting the first annual Education Reform Idol contest. The goal is to anoint the reformiest education leader among five candidates: Tony Bennett, Superintendent in Indiana; Peggy Lehner, Ohio State Senator; Patricia Levesque, Executive Director of Foundation for Florida’s Future; Ryan Murray, Policy Director of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Office; and Robin M. Steans of Advance Illinois.

A New Jersey link: Wisconsin’s credentials as a contender are buttressed by its Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which sounds an awful lot like our in utero Opportunity Scholarship Act. The Milwaukee program, according to Wisconsin DOE data, served 20,996 kids in Milwaukee in 2010 and included 102 private or parochial schools. Total Milwaukee public school enrollment is about about 82,000 kids. For the 2010-2011 school year the aid for each student attending a “choice” school was either $6,442 or the private school’s operating and debt service cost per student, whichever was less.

For this school year this voucher program will extend to 500 of Racine’s students.

Milwaukee’s public schools have long been plagued by out-of-line costs, which may account for some of the receptiveness towards non-traditional use of public school funds. A 2009 independent analysis, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “found waste in every area - inefficient payroll processing, overqualified maintenance teams, even pencil sharpeners that cost more than $100. The report also found more than five dozen central office jobs with six-figure salaries.”

A couple of differences between Wisconsin's successful voucher program and our fledgling one: NJ's version includes public schools as choices for families, and annual tuition is capped at between $6K and $9K, which is, respectively, 40% and 59% annual cost per pupil in traditional public schools. Of course, NJ's proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act is aimed at many more than one struggling city. Perhaps there's a lesson there for NJ from Milwaukee's successful voucher system.