Sorting out Voucher Funding Claims

A week-old memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau comparing funding between public and voucher schools is sparking some interesting claims. Rep. Sondy Pope states that: “from 2010-11 to 2015-16, funding to voucher schools increased by $911 per student. Conversely, public school students experienced a funding cut of $210 per pupil.”

Well yes, this is technically true. Between 2011 and 2016 state aid divided by enrollment decreased from $5,318 per-pupil to $5,108 per-pupil, while per-pupil Milwaukee voucher funding increased from $6,442 to $7,353. The problem is, no matter your opinion on school vouchers, these number are not really comparable.

The Milwaukee voucher funding number is a state payment, but in reality the MPCP is funded by a combination of state and local sources. This year, for example, 71.2% of the cost of the MPCP came from state general purpose revenues, while the remaining 28.8% was funded through a reduction in state aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). MPS can and does make up for the reduction via their tax levy, so in reality Milwaukee taxpayers fund 28.8% of the MPCP (it is actually slightly less due to the poverty aid provision which offsets the levy, but I’ll risk not making things even more convoluted). So, in 2015-16 each Milwaukee voucher pupil on average received $2,118 from Milwaukee taxpayers, and $5,235 from the state.

I have argued the appropriate comparison between the MPCP and the MPS per-pupil support is the voucher amount and the MPS per-pupil revenue limit (I explained how revenue limits work in the past, if interested). Between 2010-11 the MPS revenue limit increased from $10,291.54 to $10,450.18 ($158.64), compared to the $911 increase per-pupil for MPCP pupils. So where the heck does this leave us?

First, MPS pupils generate more combined state and local funding than Milwaukee voucher pupils. Comparing the total voucher payment with the per-pupil state aid to MPS paints an inaccurate picture. Second, MPCP per-pupil funding has increased at a faster rate than MPS per-pupil funding in recent years. Third, as I’ve argued in the past, Wisconsin school districts are under significant fiscal stress due to cuts and limits on education revenues. Last and most important, voucher funding is a hot mess, just check out DPI’s table on funding by choice program.

It is so convoluted because the state’s funding system did not anticipate and was not designed to accommodate these types of programs. Hence, the state has a patchwork in which changes inevitably create winners and losers, or at least the perceptions of winners and losers (which can be just as problematic). The way forward in Milwaukee, in my opinion, is a governance solution that normalizes the MPCP, funding and all. Unless and until that happens, the funding debates, claims, and counterclaims, will continue.

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