Friday, August 30, 2013

Voucher Program Expands While Public Schools Receive Less State Aid...Again

From State Senator Chris Larson's weekly e-newsletter:
During this time last year, legislative Democrats warned that schools would face drastic funding cuts, fewer educational opportunities, and reductions in teachers and staff. This was the result of legislative Republicans passing Scott Walker's first budget as governor, which decreased state aid support for Wisconsin's neighborhood schools by over $800 million. Unfortunately, many schools are expected to fare even worse this school year under Governor Walker's recently passed second budget.

Cuts to General School Aid in Our Community

While general school aid statewide increased overall by 1.1%, including in the local Oak Creek-Franklin and South Milwaukee school districts, much of the increase is being diverted to private voucher schools as a result of Republicans expanding the program statewide. According to recent estimates by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), more than half of Wisconsin public school districts will receive less general aid in the 2013-2014 school year than they did for the 2012-2013 school year. In fact, 229 of Wisconsin's 424 school districts, or 54%, will receive less general aid in the current school year. This includes our very own Cudahy, St. Francis, and Milwaukee school districts, which will see a decrease in state aid of $104,435; $199,455; and $1,407,778 respectively. In contrast, schools in the voucher program will see an astronomical increase of up to $1,414 per pupil.

Click here to view the break down of state aid for each school district.

Vouchers for Kids Already Attending Private Schools

Those of us residing in Milwaukee and Racine counties are already familiar with the damage our children, property taxes, and communities suffer as a result of expanding unaccountable voucher schools. Over the past 20 years, we have spent $1.5 billion on a voucher experiment that has failed the students of Milwaukee and Racine. In fact, study after study has confirmed that voucher school students fare no better and often worse than their public school counterparts. Unfortunately, rather than learning from the mistakes of Milwaukee and Racine's voucher programs, Republicans have instead decided to take the rest of the state down with this sinking ship.

Earlier this month, DPI announced the names of schools that would now be eligible to participate in the voucher program, which was recently expanded statewide. The schools took applications for 2,069 prospective voucher students for the upcoming school year and are located in the following districts:

  • Appleton
  • Beloit and Janesville
  • Chippewa Falls
  • Eau Claire and Altoona
  • Fond du Lac
  • Green Bay and De Pere
  • Kenosha
  • La Crosse and Onalaska
  • Madison
  • Manitowoc
  • Marshfield
  • Oshkosh
  • Plymouth
  • Sheboygan
  • Stevens Point and Plover
  • Wausau and Rothschild
  • Wisconsin Rapids

However, it has become clear that while these students may be new to the voucher program, the majority of them are not new to private schools. In fact, 1,393 students, or 67.3% of applicants, attended a Wisconsin private school in the previous school year. This means that the parents of two-thirds of eligible applicants were able to afford private school tuition or obtain funds without public assistance. The voucher program was created to provide parents of public school students with a "choice" they may not be able to afford on their own, but it looks like Republicans have quietly changed the program to instead offer taxpayer-funded handouts to the parents who can already afford to send their kids to private school.

Click here for more information about who is receiving voucher funds.

Additionally, as our public school students and their parents continue to be penalized by having to support two separate and unequal school districts, the parents of private school students will be further rewarded in this current budget with a tax break totaling $30 million in the 2014-2015 school year for an annual per student deduction of up to $10,000.

Study After Study Confirms Voucher Failure

Yet another study was recently released factually proving that voucher students fare no better and often worse than their public school counterparts. The study, released by the American Educational Research Journal and the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, has conclusions that are nothing short of shocking. Below are the findings:

  • Students leaving voucher schools are the same children the program was designed to help. While the voucher program was created to give poorer, low-achieving students the opportunity for a better education, most of the children leaving voucher schools and returning to public schools are these poorer, low-achieving students. Such data reinforces that the voucher program is failing the very kids it was supposed to help.
  • Most students who transfer from the voucher program back into public schools realize significant achievement gains after doing so. Such achievement growth is even more significant for low-performing students. This statistic highlights that students who return to MPS truly do better once they are back in public school.
  • Voucher schools are less likely to identify and assist students who require special education. This means that children needing greater assistance are left behind.
  • Parental dissatisfaction was the most common reason cited by parents for students leaving the voucher program. Next in line was inadequate handling of special needs students. Such results verify that voucher schools do not always live up to the hype they have created and are frequently found to be a worse option for our children than traditional public schools.

Click here to access the voucher study mentioned.

In addition to this study, data recently collected by DPI shows a snapshot of just how voucher school students are performing compared to their public school counterparts. This data analyzes how all voucher and public school students in 4th, 8th, and 10th grade performed in reading, math, and science during the 2010-2011 school year. According to the data, Milwaukee Public School students outperformed voucher students in eight out of nine categories.

Much of the failings of schools participating in the voucher program can likely be attributed to the lack of accountability and transparency measures in place. Below are a few of the following standards that are in place in our public schools but are not required by schools in the voucher program:

  • Teacher Licensure--Require all teachers to be licensed by DPI
  • Background Checks--Require background checks on all staff and prohibit a school from employing an individual convicted of certain class felonies, such as sex offenses specified in Wis. Stats. 115.31
  • Open Records Law Compliance--Require that schools be subject to Wisconsin's Open Records Law
  • Special Education Staff--Require schools to employ special education teachers or therapists if pupils needing such services attend the school to prevent discrimination
  • Corporal Punishment Ban--Require schools to follow current laws governing corporal punishment
  • Uniform Graduation Credits and Standards--Require schools to conform with specific graduation requirements
  • Due Process Procedure for Expulsion--Require a due process procedure when determining expulsion at a school

Voucher Schools Raise Property Taxes

In 2010, state law compelled Milwaukee Public Schools to levy over $50 million in taxes to subsidize the private and religious schools making up the unaccountable voucher program, which amounts to 17% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy. Due to policy changes in the last Republican budget, the cost of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) rose significantly, exceeding the state's official 2012 estimate and increasing the financial responsibility of taxpayers to 22.6% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy.

In truth, Milwaukee taxpayers are now being billed for both the largest school district in the state, Milwaukee Public Schools, AND the fourth largest, which is what the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has grown to be with 22,400 students. The tax levy for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program already exceeds the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District by nearly $10 million and is expected to exceed Milwaukee Area Technical College's in the next few years. With the expansion of vouchers statewide this is a burden that may now be endured by all Wisconsin communities. While my Milwaukee colleagues and I were able to successfully achieve some transparency by providing separate cost information for MPS and MPCP schools on Milwaukee property tax bills, such transparency does not exist in the other 423 school districts.

It is important to note that there are private schools in our community that provide a great educational experience to families interested in receiving a faith-based education. Unfortunately, it is impossible to weed out the bad from the good without the necessary transparency measures in place. As it stands, the voucher program remains unaccountable. Our children and Wisconsin's property taxpayers cannot afford to support the bad, unaccountable institutions that have failed our children and taken advantage of the voucher program. If we continue down this path, it is not only Wisconsin's future workers that will suffer, but also our state. Our children's success or failure dictates whether Wisconsin will succeed or fail.

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