Breaking down Wisconsin Gubernatorial Candidate Positions on Vouchers

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a nice overview of the policy positions of the eight politicians vying for the Democrat gubernatorial nomination August 14th. I am particularly interested in candidate views on school vouchers, and unfortunately, most of the stated policy positions are out of step with reality. For example, Matt Flynn says he would “require voucher schools to accept students with disabilities until systems are phased out.” How exactly can you require schools to do something they are already required to do? Voucher accepting schools cannot screen for special needs, and though there are real differences in the number of special needs pupils and the severity of their needs pupils in public and voucher accepting schools, the issue of screening is a matter of law.

Mike McCabe states he would immediately end the voucher system. In Milwaukee this would create an immediate crisis. Ninety-three private schools with 29,769 students enroll over half of their students via the MPCP. It is not a stretch to say these schools (and probably many more) would no longer be viable without the MPCP. Ending the MPCP means closing schools, gutting a part of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure, and creating chaos for both families and school systems. Racine similarly has a large number of private schools highly reliant on vouchers. Simply, McCabe’s position could be implemented statewide, but is an impossible one in Milwaukee and Racine.

Most of the other candidates advocate phasing out the voucher programs by stopping new enrollees from attending, which would essentially phase vouchers out one grade level at a time. This position obviously comes from a good place; candidates do not want to disrupt lives by kicking kids out of school, but will nonetheless create chaos in Milwaukee, especially in K-8 schools. Schools have fixed costs, eliminating a grade level at a time is not viable beyond a year or two for the huge number of MPCP schools highly reliant on vouchers. On average, each K-8 grade enrolls about 10% of the total MPCP K-8 student population. Assuming this holds more-or-less true at the school level, MPCP schools will see 10% of their revenues disappear each year. You combine this with high mobility (which exists across all sectors in Milwaukee education), and you will see school closures in a year or two, and a full-blown crisis soon thereafter.

The only candidate with a plausible plan is Tony Evers, who says he “Wants to phase out four voucher systems over time, unless Legislature passes a significant funding increase for public schools and adds accountability regulations for voucher schools.” Such a phase out would create the problems I just mentioned, but at the very least Evers expresses an openness to compromise on the issue. I can only speculate this openness comes from his awareness of the reality in Milwaukee based on his work at DPI.

I am the first to admit that voucher programs have their flaws, heck I continue to take heat for not seeing the merit or urgency in the statewide and special needs voucher programs. And I wrote a whole book on the practical problems created in Milwaukee due to governance fragmentation. But on balance I was disappointed that so many candidates are taking a position divorced from the reality of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure. Recognizing the problems as it exists is a necessary step for positive action. It is likely these positions are merely primary politics. It is also likely the candidate with the most reasonable response and the most understanding of the MPCP will win the primary. Meaning, the MPCP is not going away. But still, can we improve this debate?

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