Erin Richard’s article this morning on the Public Policy Forum’s latest Milwaukee voucher brief contains a few things that need to be addressed. Most important is the issue of funding. From the story:
“As for total per-pupil cost, that figure can often be presented in a variety of ways, depending on what state, local, federal and grant dollars one includes.
The U.S. census, for example, reports that MPS spends close to $14,000 per pupil annually.
MPS fiscal experts contend the amount is closer to $10,000, with about $7,700 coming from state aid. They say the figures from the census include federal dollars that flow through the district but don’t ever reach a classroom, such as funds that support the Milwaukee Recreation Department.”
Passages like this drive me nuts because it leaves the impression that education finance is some impossible puzzle where no concrete answers exist. Accepting education finance as a maze of relatively creates space for false claims to be made over and over again. In fact, there are answers to most of the questions that so often cause people to throw up their hands during discussions of education finance.
The issue of federal dollars to the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), referenced in Richard’s story, is pretty easy to understand. According to MPS’ proposed FY13 budget the district expected to receive $50.7 million in federal aids for operations in FY13, most of which pays for school lunch programs. However, the district also budgeted $164.2 million in federal categorical aids, mostly to fund low-income and special needs pupils. And yes, $14.5 million of those federal categorical aids are for private schools:
It is also quite easy to determine funding for MPS’ Recreation Department; the district’s extension fund is $23.7 million (and no federal money).
So while it is true that the MPS budget contains funds, federal and otherwise, that do not fund education, the federal dollars contained in MPS’ budget should not be ignored. We also should not ignore the federal funds received by independent private and charter schools in Milwaukee. Though I admit is not perfect, I have attempted to make comparisons in the past on this blog that consider all of these facts.
As for the Public Policy Forum report itself, it points out many things that are distressing but not all that surprising given the state of education in Milwaukee. Schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) are racially and socio-economically isolated; participating schools serve an overwhelmingly low-income minority population. Like MPS, some schools in the MPCP are struggling to fund special programming like art and music. And, as we know, WKCE scores for schools in Milwaukee trail state averages.
There is a table on the first page of the Public Policy Forum report to which I take issue. “Table 1” compares the state aid per-pupil for several public school districts with the MPCP maximum voucher payment of $6,442. This comparison mirrors the faulty comparison made by Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts last month. Simply, the maximum voucher payment is not made up of all state aid, and should not be compared with the state aid received by school districts. Below is what I wrote in response to Pope-Roberts, it is just as relevant here:
“The larger problem with Pope-Roberts’ release is that it ignores the fact that only 65% of the voucher payment in Milwaukee comes from the state, the rest comes from an aid reduction to the Milwaukee Public Schools that is offset by the property tax (meaning it really comes from the Milwaukee taxpayer). The actual state support of the MPCP is $4,187.30 per-pupil. That number is less than the state average aid per-pupil of $4,899 and less than the per-pupil state aid sent to 65% of Wisconsin districts.”
Though I have a couple other quibbles with the Public Policy Forum Report (mainly the jumping back and forth between comparisons of voucher users and school-wide statistics for schools accepting vouchers) it should serve as a reminder that schools in MPS and the MPCP are serving similar pupils and facing similar challenges. It would nice if the education debate in Milwaukee could shift its focus towards finding ways to meet those challenges.