Lessons from Milwaukee’s Voucher Experience

Milwaukee’s education system is a pretty amazing thing. When I try to explain it to people outside Wisconsin I am often met with disbelief. “That can’t be right,” is a common response to my explanation of Milwaukee’s fragmented public education system. In my recently published book, The Consequences of Governance Fragmentation, I attempt to better articulate what has happened in Milwaukee, and what policymakers can do to improve the performance of publicly-funded education in Wisconsin’s largest city. The book should offer something of interest to education policy scholars, public administration scholars, as well as those interested in Milwaukee’s education system. So what’s in the book?

My main argument is that we need to find a new way to think about public education in Milwaukee. Aggregate improvement in Milwaukee is impossible as long as the governance structure is hopelessly fragmented. The question of whether voucher policy, the Milwaukee Public School system (MPS), or charter policy “works” is, I argue, the wrong question. For Milwaukee’s education system to be successful, it must work as a whole, and all sectors are needed to make that happen. I for one think success is possible, but not until a meta-governance solution creates regulatory and funding equity for Milwaukee schools, and not until venues are created to end the never-ending debates that prevent progress. Basically, some order and direction is needed (as well as a shift in mindset).

In the book I first I track the evolution of Milwaukee’s voucher policy, arguing the program went from a bold experiment to the new status quo. Next I explain how Milwaukee’s education system became so fragmented, sharing numbers on the growth of the voucher system, the demise of the traditional private school system, and the growth of other choice reforms including charter schools and open enrollment. Then I explore the issue of school failure in Milwaukee. Next I discuss the ever-heated topic of accountability, using data from voucher school leaders to highlight the broad disconnect on the meaning of accountability in Milwaukee education. Then I track the fiscal decline of MPS, offering some hard truths regarding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s impact on legacy public schools. I waited until Chapter 7 to discuss politics! Finally I evaluate the overall impact of the MPCP on Milwaukee education, propose a new governing board to normalize all publicly funded schools in Milwaukee (including reasons why this is and is not a crazy idea), and offer the following broader governance lessons from the Milwaukee voucher experience:

  • Private and nonprofit organizations become quasi-public organizations when they accept public funds.
  • The performance of a governance network is a function of the quality of the organizations operating within it.
  • Consumer choice alone will not improve performance.
  • Accountability is an amorphous concept, but will nonetheless be demanded.
  • Governance reforms without electoral accountability will be deemed illegitimate.
  • Regulatory creep is inevitable in a fragmented governance system.
  • Governance fragmentation causes financial harm to legacy institutions.
  • Funding and regulatory inequity prevents the legitimization of governance actors.

As it stands, Milwaukee’s K-12 education system is a bit of a confused mess. About 75,000 students attend MPS schools of some kind, over 27,000 attend a private school using a voucher, almost 9,000 attend an independently authorized charter school, and over 6,000 attend a suburban public school via public school choice programs.   The current system was designed, or at least evolved, because parental choice became the dominant value in Milwaukee’s education system. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. If parents are satisfied and schools are competing and improving, the fact that schools are funded and regulated in an inequitable way could perhaps be justified. The problem in Milwaukee, however, is that we fragmented the public education system, but overall aggregate performance did not improve at an acceptable rate. To put it a bit sillier, we cracked the eggs but the omelet never materialized.

My hope is this book sheds light on how we might put the pieces back together so that Milwaukee children can benefit from the talent and commitment present across all school sectors. More broadly, I hope those interested in governance can learn from the Milwaukee education experience, and better yet avoid some of the mistakes that were made. If interested you can buy the book here, or read a bit more about what it entails here. Feel free to contact me about it as well, my e-mail is fordm@uwosh.edu.

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