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Wisconsin doubles down on destructive voucher program

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There has been no program more detrimental to Wisconsin’s public education system than vouchers, and yet the Walker administration is doubling down on it.

The state’s failed voucher experiment has siphoned millions of dollars from its public schools without achieving any measurable benefit for students. Now a new memorandum from Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reveals that despite the program’s shortcomings, Wisconsin spends more money per pupil on vouchers than it does on public school students … by a lot.

The data show that since the 2010-2011 school year, Wisconsin’s average per pupil spending on vouchers has increased 14 percent, from $6,442 per student in 2010-11 to $7,353 per student in 2015-16. Over the same period, state net general aid payments to public school districts have declined by 4 percent, both in raw numbers and on a per pupil basis, from $5,318 per student in 2010-11 to $5,108 per student in 2015-16.

Proponents of the voucher program have whined that these numbers paint an incomplete picture, since they don’t factor in categorical aid from the state (money targeted to specific programs like special education). While the numbers for categorical aid spending are not yet available for 2015-16, if we plug in the maximum figure appropriated by the Legislature (the actual amount spent will be lower), the state is still only spending $5,988 per public school student. That means Wisconsin is spending at least $1,365 more on each voucher student than each public school student.

What sort of return can taxpayers expect for all that extra spending? In many cases, the answer is “not much.” Between 2004 and 2014, for instance, Milwaukee’s voucher program—the longest running voucher experiment in the country—spent more than $139 million in taxpayer money on schools that were subsequently barred from the voucher program for failing to meet requirements related to finances, accreditation, student safety, and auditing. A Wisconsin State Journal review revealed that “eleven schools, paid a total of $4.1 million, were terminated from the voucher program after just one year.” During that same period, 50 total schools were barred from the program. This “cut and run” phenomenon means that vouchers aren’t just siphoning money away from public schools, but that the money isn’t even being spent to fund viable alternatives.

The special needs voucher plan is another good indicator of how badly vouchers serve Wisconsin students. Special needs advocates have long cautioned that private vouchers would take away funding from public school programs and give it to unsuitable private schools without any guarantees that those schools would meet the education needs of students with disabilities, as public schools are mandated to do by federal law. A recent analysis by The Progressive confirms that this is precisely what is about to happen. Of the 28 private schools that have agreed to take special needs vouchers for the 2016-17 school year, 25 are religious institutions. Only one of them has indicated that it’s wheelchair accessible. The others are likely not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and those responsive to questioning conceded that they do not have the resources needed to accommodate special needs students.

Not only are voucher schools shortchanging Wisconsin taxpayers and special needs students, but the educational impact on students attending voucher schools has been underwhelming. The most recent results of the Badger Exam—Wisconsin’s assessment of student readiness for the 2014-15 school year—revealed that students in private voucher schools actually performed worse than their Milwaukee Public School counterparts in both math and reading. The difference was small: 25% of voucher school students scored proficient or better in English Language Arts as compared to 26% of MPS students. In math, 15% of voucher students were proficient or better, compared to 16% of MPS students. Under the previous Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination, the discrepancy was worse. But even if the results were identical, that would be damning. The voucher system has simply failed to fulfill its promise of improving educational outcomes for students.

The voucher system is seriously harming Wisconsin, and Gov. Scott Walker’s faith in it is completely misplaced.

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