“I don’t think you can honestly say that 25,000 students are using the Milwaukee Parental Choice program because they’re somehow being duped by big money politics. They’re using the program because they find it successful.”
I’ll reiterate that I am not naïve about the very real role of money in politics, nor am I opposed to the transparency work of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC). I think the work of the WDC is important; people have a right to know how much and where money is being spent in electoral politics.
“After 23 years, you’d think that if a state program failed to deliver the promised results and had a checkered management history to boot, lawmakers would be talking about ending it. Instead, they are debating its expansion.”
There is so much to counter in the commentary it is hard to know where to start. McCabe writes that advocates said the program would “not only boost the achievement of students benefiting from the public vouchers paying for them to attend a private or religious school, but would also lift all boats by creating competition among schools,” but concludes it “hasn’t happened.”
“the voucher program has been plagued over the years by story after story after story of poor performance, safety code violations, mismanagement and fraud.”
This statement is just irresponsible. Is he referring to David Seppeh, the former principal who stole from the program in 2004, who was caught and sent to prison? Seppeh, according to former Journal Sentinel writer Gregory Stanford, was caught “thanks to new standards voucher proponents helped draft.” If a few isolated cases of criminal fraud warrant eliminating a public institution or program we’d have to get rid of the public school system too.
Many things should be part of the debate on voucher expansion. Part of the debate should be the extensive research on the results of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Part of the debate should be the evolution of the MPCP over its existence. School choice in 2013 looks nothing like school choice in 1990, especially in terms of the effectiveness of its accountability framework. And part of the debate should certainly be the motives of those advocating for school choice…and against it.
I don’t say much about national policy given this blog’s focus but yesterday’s action to block a reasonable background check proposal for gun purchases was ridiculous. The bill had bi-partisan sponsorship. The concept is supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. And the bill had majority support in the U.S. Senate. Yet it was blocked.
Liberty, freedom, and constitutional rights are concepts worth protecting. But so is common sense. Stopping a bill that would have required background checks for Internet and gun show firearm purchases does nothing to further the cause of liberty, it only undermines common sense.
At the start my public policy career I had the good fortune to work with someone who fully understood the power of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) in influencing Wisconsin policy debates. To paraphrase my colleague, legislators want answers, and LFB is the respected authority that provides them. It follows that the content of LFB fiscal notes are often the catalyst, or death knell, for major potential policy changes.
First the note points out the obvious. When a student switches from a public school to private school via the theoretical choice program the district loses revenue. Why? Each student attending a public school district generates somewhere around $10,000 in state aid and local revenue (this is an estimate for ease of understanding, the actual amount varies by district). When a student leaves for any reason, the district will eventually lose the $10,000 per-kid. If you look at Table 4 on page 5 the first column shows the eventual estimated impact on participating district revenue limits.
School districts will naturally get worked up about this; they want the market-share and the revenue that comes with it. However, it is hard to justify that districts should be receiving funds for students they are no longer educating.
The more problematic part of the note for school choice advocates is the next three columns. The first column shows the aid reduction to public school districts to pay for 38.4% of the new choice program. Districts don’t lose this money, they offset it with the property tax levy. In most cases, the local per-pupil cost for a choice program is less than the local per-pupil cost for a public school student, so on the surface it appears taxpayers are getting a bargain. However, the next column is where things get more complicated.
That column, labeled “Aid Formula Reduction,” reflects two things. First, the loss of state aid that would have been generated by each pupil that leaves the district. Second, the change in distribution of state and local aid caused by having fewer students in the per-member property value calculation. In English (or something closer to it), when a student leaves a district the district’s per-member property value increases, which lowers the portion of their revenue that comes from state aid and increases the portion that comes from the local property tax.
That is why, against all logic, that last column shows a levy increase despite the lower cost of the choice program. To put in even simpler, when a student leaves for any reason it does impact the state aid/property tax split for students the district is still educating.
Whether you follow me or not, it is important to note that the district does not lose any total revenue for students it continues to educate, it only makes them raise more of that revenue through the property tax. In other words, this is mainly a taxpayer issue.
All of this leads to the important question for legislators, do you support school choice on the merits, or will you pull support over these estimated levy changes? I have argued on this blog many times that there are good reasons to support school choice. It would be a shame if these good reasons are ignored because of the technical issue of a funding formula that was created prior to the creation of school choice programs.
How about that tongue twister? It is referring to the recent posting by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign that school choice supporters spent $9.8 millions dollars to support school choice in Wisconsin. This money came in the form of issue advertising from 3rd party groups as well as in the form of direct campaign contributions to legislators who support school choice.
You will excuse me if I am not blown away by this revelation. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (which impressively serves its mission for open government with a useful campaign contribution database) is against the role of money in politics and has every right to say so. But this latest report leaves me with a few pressing questions.
First, did legislators switch their positions on school choice because of campaign contributions? If the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is correct that “persistent, generous campaign contributions and millions of dollars more in outside election spending by mostly out-of-state interests are keys to the program’s survival and growth,” then it’s a small step to conclude that school choice would not be supported by any legislator if not for these shadowy outstate interests.
Most important, what about the 25,000 students using the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program? Were their families duped by money too? Or is it possible that polling from WPRI and others is correct and parents actually like school choice?
I am not naïve enough to think that money plays no role in politics, nor do I think the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is wrong to point out the political activity of school choice advocates in Wisconsin. But it is crucial that the other factors explaining the prominence of school choice in Wisconsin are not ignored. As I have said over and over again, the school choice programs in Wisconsin are not perfect, but they exist and are supported by many for reasons that have nothing to do with politics or campaign contributions.
Why is drinking a beer outdoors so much better than drinking a beer indoors? Maybe it is the sunshine. Or maybe, in the case of the many summer festivals in Milwaukee and elsewhere, it is the atmosphere.
Just over a week ago I was in Oakland, California visiting relatives and had the chance to attend the city’s monthly First Friday street festival. The free event features street art (such as spray-painting a car), all kinds of music, an abundance of food trucks, simply awful stand-up comedy, and all the people watching anyone could want. Though I felt out of place wearing a tie and sport coat, my vastly cooler brother-in-law informed me that my outfit was great; at this festival I was the non-conformer.
The night I attended, Oakland’s First Friday was a showcase of the positive attributes of urban living, an example of community, creativity, and safety in a crowd. Unfortunately, the event has in the recent past shown how street festivals can be marred by violence. Seemingly all it takes is a small spark to ruin something great.
I am not picking on Oakland, these types of incidents occur across the country, including Milwaukee. Remember RiverSplash? A once great event was undone by a single shooting. Worse yet, even isolated incidents at high-profile events further the misperception that cities are inherently violent places.
It is unfortunate not because violence and drunkenness in a dense area should be celebrated, but because, regardless of the reasons, another quintessential urban event in Wisconsin is gone. Perhaps, like First Friday in Oakland, revelers and police will find a way to tone down the event in the future so as to accentuate the positive and minimize the chances of violence and lewd behavior. I hope they do, because when done correctly events like these enhance the quality of life in Wisconsin.
John Gurda recently wrote an opinion piece strongly questioning Scott Walker on his claim to love Milwaukee. My boss, George Lightbourn, wrote a strong rebuke. Both are well written and thoughtful, and well worth reading. Regular readers (reader?) of this blog won’t be surprised that I come down somewhere in the middle on this one.
In my humble opinion the Governor has sent mixed messages to us Milwaukeeans with his actions in key policy areas. Consider education. His strong and sincere support of school choice shows a commitment to an issue that is popular with residents. However, the cutting of per-pupil revenue limits for public schools understandably did not sit well with the tens of thousands of families attending the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
Then there is Act 10. The MPS superintendent and board used the law change to put MPS on a vastly improved financial track. In addition, empowering local government through Act 10 demonstrated Walker trusts localities to make important decisions. However, Act 10 also decreased the take-home pay of public employees in Milwaukee.
MPS and the City of Milwaukee are the 3rd and 10th largest employers in Milwaukee, employing over 15,000 middle class city residents. Put yourself in the position of these Milwaukeeans. Would you feel appreciated if your take-home pay were cut no matter your job performance?
Then there is the residency requirement. I am in the camp that removing the residency requirement would probably not be a major blow to Milwaukee. I live in a neighborhood that is full of City workers, and I don’t hear much complaining about being forced to live in the City. However, state action to remove the residency requirement is the exact opposite of local control, which seems out of step with the spirit of Act 10.
And of course there is transportation. Certainly the work on the zoo interchange will help better connect the state’s two largest urban areas. But so would have the high-speed train to Madison. Whatever its merits (and I for one was not sold on it), Walker’s actions to block the train immediately turned off many residents of Wisconsin’s two largest urban areas.
I also think the perception of Walker is somewhat skewed by the anti-big-government rhetoric from Ron Johnson and other prominent state Republicans. It’s easy for many to equate opposition to large government as opposition to all government, and it’s easy to assume all state Republicans feel the same on the issue. This isn’t fair to Governor Walker, but it is a perception nonetheless.
I don’t think Governor Walker dislikes Milwaukee, nor I do think he is reflexively anti-urban. But I do think there are legitimate reasons Gurda and others, including urban Conservatives, feel the state’s largest city is not the top priority for the Walker administration.
So what can Walker do differently to address the complaints of Gurda and others? The urban – non-urban dichotomy in Wisconsin politics is so strong, and so tied to political affiliation, I’m not sure there is much he can do. And that is unfortunate for all.
The mission of PolitiFact is noble and needed in many cases. It makes sense for a newspaper to try to sort out the sometimes misleading and outright false statements of Wisconsin politicians. However, there are some issues, like school funding, that are not black and white and hence confound PolitFact’s simple rating system.
This is why their attempt to sort out Governor Walker’s claim on school voucher funding is particularly head-scratching. Specifically, PolitiFact evaluates the statement from Governor Walker that under his budget “choice schools will get about half” of public school funding per-pupil.
PolitiFact rates the statement half-true, stating:
“He’s pretty close for some schools but not others based on his method of comparison, but off considerably based on a method preferred by researchers as a more accurate comparison. On the Truth-O-Meter, there’s a spot for claims that are partially accurate but leave out important details or takes things out of context.”
Overall their conclusion is ok, technically the Governor was incorrect to say half of the public funding as public schools. A comparison of the average per-pupil public support of students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) with students using the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program shows private high school students, under Walker’s budget, will get about 60% of their MPS peers. However, to borrow the language of PolitFact, the rationale for their conclusion is half-true.
First, they suggest that any comparison of voucher and public school funding is not technically true because no comparison is perfect. While this is correct because Wisconsin funds the two systems in different ways, the lack of a perfect comparison does not mean any attempted comparison is by definition an obfuscation.
Third, it is possible to subtract funds for private schools and non-education expenses such as recreation from MPS’ budget when making a per-pupil support comparisons. I did that back in July (if anyone is interested) and came up with a per-pupil support number of $13,269 for MPS.
Perhaps I am getting away from the point here. Half-true or not, by any objective measure students in the choice program are supported by significantly fewer public funds than students in traditional public schools. The key policy question is not who is describing the inequity best, but whether policymakers feel the inequity is worth addressing.
Specifically, the legislators are floating the idea of a $1,500 to $2,500 tax credit for families sending their children to private school. Certainly the idea would be a major win for families of the 100,000 students currently paying tuition at private schools in Wisconsin. However, it makes no sense to bring up this discussion now, and certainly not the in the same conversation as voucher expansion. They are completely different animals.
First, voucher expansion is targeted toward low-income and working-class families. In contrast, the tax credit idea is targeted towards families already paying tuition at private schools. Second, the huge price tag (do the math 100,000 X $1,500 = $150 million) makes the idea much less realistic than the $6.2 million currently budgeted for voucher expansion. Third, the size of the tax credit makes it likely few additional families will have access to private schools because of it, and certainty lower-income families will not gain substantially more access to private education.
Last, and not unimportant, the tax credit will not stimulate new schools. Though opponents and proponents of vouchers can recite a few horror stories of failed start-ups in the Milwaukee voucher program (stories that led to the targeted regulation currently in place to stop these schools), many of the highest quality private and charter schools in Milwaukee would never have opened if not for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Again, there may be merit to the tuition tax credit idea, but it should not be floated as a compromise to the choice expansion currently on the table. A tax-credit serves a very different purpose than a targeted voucher program.
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has a useful tool on its website that allows users to search for information about school district referenda going back to 1990. I used it today to see if there was an uptick in referenda to exceed revenue caps after the passage of the first Walker budget in 2011.
That budget, as school districts across the state surely recall, cut revenue limits in year one (the first time that has happened) and allowed for only a modest $50 increase per-pupil in year two. For the uninitiated, revenue limits cap the amount of money school districts can raise per-pupil through a combination of state aid and local property taxes. Districts may only exceed caps by going directly to their voters via a referendum.
Given the cuts in revenue limits in FY12, my hypothesis was that the number of school district referenda increased in FY12 as districts sought to offset the cuts. But as you can see below, that has not been the case.
Fiscal Year – Number of Referenda
FY06 – 63
FY07 – 77
FY08 – 60
FY09 – 77
FY10 – 40
FY11 – 43
FY12 – 26
FY13 (so far) – 22
The number of referenda actually went down considerably in fiscal year 2012, amplifying a trend that began in 2010. Clearly my hypothesis is junk, but why? There are a couple potential reasons.
One is the passage of Act 10. Part of that law increased school district employee pension contributions, providing some savings to most districts. Many districts also offset (at least partially) the revenue limit cut by increasing employee healthcare contributions. Broadly, districts may have found it easier and/or more attractive to use their new authority to obtain additional revenue from their employees rather than ask taxpayers.
Or, perhaps the numbers of attempted referenda are declining because districts are learning from past experience. While the total numbers of attempted referenda are decreasing, their passage rates are increasing. From FY07 to FY10 about 50% of referenda to exceed revenue limits failed. In FY12, almost 70% passed. Why go to the trouble of a political battle for more revenue if experience tells you it is futile?
Most likely, my failed hypothesis is due to the downturn in the economy. School board members are democratically elected and are necessarily aware of the mood of their electorate. When economic times are tough it is a difficult and potentially politically dangerous to ask taxpayers for more money.
I plan on keeping up with this to see, particularly if the current budget passes with no revenue limit increases, if the trend of fewer referenda continues. If it does, it says something powerful about the limits of local control, particularly for school boards when it comes to fiscal decision-making.
Of all the reasons out there to oppose school vouchers this is probably the worst. The article comes from the Murfreesboro Post in Murfreesboro, TN, and focuses on a Tennessee state legislator concerned that Islamic schools may participate in a proposed voucher program.
If Milwaukee’s experience is any indication, yes, Islamic schools will participate in Tennessee’s proposed voucher program. So will Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, Baptist schools, Jewish schools, non-sectarian schools, Seventh-Day Adventist schools, and non-denominational Christian schools. And if they all meet the accountability requirements for the Tennessee program, why shouldn’t they participate?
The fears raised by this Tennessee legislator mirror some of the ugly statements made during the debate over the original religious expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) in 1995. Aside from being abhorrent on their face, the concerns about voucher programs funding radical schools have proved to be, surprise surprise, totally unfounded.
Participation in the MPCP is a common thread uniting an incredibly diverse group of schools serving an incredibly diverse group of students in Milwaukee (including 842 whom are attending Islamic schools). The diversity promoted by the MPCP is something of which Milwaukee and Wisconsin can be proud.
So I say to the folks considering vouchers in Tennessee: There are many thoughtful reasons given by those who oppose school vouchers, but this is not one of them.