Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Will an expanded voucher program cost more or less?

Gov. Walker’s proposed 2011-2013 biennial budget calls for an expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program by repealing the enrollment cap, allowing private schools anywhere within Milwaukee County to participate, and expanding eligibility to all City of Milwaukee families by eliminating income limits.

During tough budget deliberations, it would be good to know whether the expanded choice program is likely to save or cost state taxpayers over the long run. Either is possible—taxpayers save if the students who join the expanded program otherwise would have been students at more costly public or charter schools and taxpayers lose if the new voucher users would have otherwise been free to the state as tuition-paying private school students.

There is a debate over the likelihood that the program will be able expand considerably, as capacity for new students in the county’s existing private schools appears constrained at this time. However, the debate so far has overlooked the fact that the proposed budget would allow new voucher users to be existing private school students starting in the 2012-13 school year. There is a real concern that the expanded program may, in fact, increase costs for the state over the long run by increasing the total number of Wisconsin K-12 students who receive state support for their education.

Analyzing data from other years in which the legislature expanded the program can give a sense of how likely it is that significant growth in the program will come from existing private school students. When the choice program expanded to include religious schools in 1998, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) collected information regarding the type of school each voucher user had attended the previous school year. From that data, we know that 50% of the new voucher users in 1998-99 were already enrolled in private schools—2,512 of the 4,995 new voucher users.

We can also look at growth in voucher use compared to total growth in private school enrollment. In 2006, when the enrollment cap was raised, more private school students took advantage of the opportunity to use vouchers than public school students. In fact, 60% of new voucher users were existing private school students in 2006—1,408 of the 2,355 new voucher users. In the Catholic and Lutheran schools in particular, new voucher users tended to be students that were already attending these schools. The Lutheran schools, for example, had 467 more students using vouchers in 2006-07 than the previous year, but total enrollment in Lutheran schools grew by only one student during that time.

If these previous experiences are a guide, it is not unreasonable to expect that about half of the new voucher users in 2012-2013 will come from within the private schools joining the program. A quick analysis of private schools located outside the city limits that may be enrolling significant numbers of Milwaukee residents indicates at least six such schools: Indian Community School, St. Thomas More High School, Dominican High School, Milwaukee Jewish Day School, St. Bernard School, and St. Robert School. The likelihood that the student populations of these private schools could generate significant demand for new vouchers is quite high; these six schools enrolled a total of 1,729 students in 2009-10.

It is clear that assuming all, or even most, new voucher users in the coming years will save taxpayers money by switching from public or charter schools is not realistic. There will certainly be growth in the total number of elementary and secondary students receiving state taxpayer support. The debate should be about the affordability of these extra costs in the short- and long-term, whether these higher costs can/should be considered an investment in a better future, and what the effects of a more costly choice program might be on the public and private schools.

UPDATE: To clarify, low-income private school students who reside in Milwaukee and attend a participating private school in Milwaukee are currently eligible to use vouchers. The budget bill does not change the income limits for these students. However, it does expand their schooling choices to include participating schools throughout Milwaukee County.


Anonymous said...

What concerns me about the Gov's current proposals is the lack of any analysis of the pros/cons, benefits/costs.

I feel too much of what is being pushed is based on "I believe..." Using the majority to fast track an agenda raises further concerns for me about the lack of analysis that can be used for the basis of a broader discussion.

The few stats raised in your post raise my levels of concern even further.

Anonymous said...

Walker supports voucher schools, because the staff is not unionized.

Anonymous said...

Its obvious the cap removal would be decimating to MPS. If enacted, questions remain: If the cap is removed, how likely/possible is it to be re-established downward after Walker is gone?
Are there controls for private schools to keep tuition down or will this inflate tuition and out of pocket costs for voucher students above the amount that is payed in the program?
Is there a new requirement that opens expectation for voucher schools to accept kids in the Special Ed program?

Just wondering...