Breaking Down Evers’ Proposed School Choice Changes

Yesterday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on some of Governor Evers’ proposed changes to Wisconsin’s school choice programs. The specifics are yet public, and the specifics will matter a great deal, but I wanted to break down what the proposal likely means. First and foremost, with Republican control of the legislature there is no way all or even most of this becomes law. That said, split control means some changes are likely on the horizon.

The most substantial proposal is to “freeze the number of students who may enroll in private voucher schools across the state, including in Milwaukee…” I have big questions about this proposal. Will enrollment at specific schools be frozen at current levels? Or, will total program enrollment be frozen? If total program enrollment is frozen it creates a logistical nightmare for schools, parents, and regulators. How will seats be allocated? Will low performing schools get seats at the expense of high performing schools? Will it just be random? How will the logistics work when students can apply to multiple schools at once? How will schools budget in this uncertainty?

If the freeze is at the school level I also additional questions. First, my research shows that school growth in Milwaukee is linked to stability and that stability is linked to performance. Limiting growth at the school level will create more instability in what is already an unstable school sector.

Freezing enrollments will be less impactful (at the macro-level) in the state program because those schools in general are less dependent on voucher revenue. But in Milwaukee, an enrollment freeze is likely to create more chaos in a system that desperately needs stability. Again, the specifics may tell a different story, but as described, I see nothing to suggest an enrollment freeze will have a positive impact on student performance in Milwaukee.

According to the Journal Sentinel, “voucher schools also would be banned from charging tuition for students living in poverty under the proposal and would be required to allow students to opt out of religious activities.” I am interested to see the specifics of the religious opt out change, because according to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau: “A school participating in the choice program cannot require a choice pupil to participate in any religious activity in the school if the pupil’s parent or guardian submits a written request to the pupil’s teacher or the school’s principal that the pupil be exempt from such activities.”

I am also unclear as to what the tuition change refers to. Currently high schools can charge additional tuition to voucher pupils with family incomes above 220% of the federal poverty level. If the proposal is to eliminate this provision, its impact would be pretty minor from a macro-level. If it prevents schools from charging tuition to low-income non-voucher pupils, it would legally problematic I’d think.

The Journal Sentinel story also states “All teachers working in schools receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers would be required to be licensed like public school teachers.” Under current law “all of the private school’s teachers have a teaching license issued by the department or a bachelor’s degree or a degree or educational credential higher than a bachelor’s degree, including a masters or doctorate, from a nationally or regionally accredited institution of higher education.” Some schools already employ only licensed teachers, but many do no. This change would have a significant impact on the Milwaukee teacher labor market.

Under the proposal “all voucher schools would be required to be accredited before receiving taxpayer funds.” Under current law non-accredited schools can get a pre-accreditation that allows them to join the MPCP, and have three years to obtain full accreditation. The main impact of this change would be to block start-up schools, which, have already slowed considerably.

According to the Journal Sentinel “The governor’s budget also proposes to suspend the creation of new independent charter schools until 2023 and eliminates a program aimed at Milwaukee that requires county officials to turn persistently poor-performing schools into charter schools without district officials’ approval.” This is pretty self-explanatory. Eliminating the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program is unlikely to be controversial since it never fully materialized. And to put it mildly, was a train wreck of an idea. Freezing independent charters will be controversial, especially in Milwaukee where there are several high performing independent charters. I am curious to learn the rationale for the freeze.

Finally, the proposal would tie per-pupil voucher payment increases to “increases in the amount of money school districts could raise in revenue and receive through the state’s per-pupil funding formula.” This seems logical to me, more certainty in funding mechanisms enables better school-level planning.

Big picture, will this proposal enable positive sustainable change that leads to improved outcomes for Milwaukee children, or is it business as usual in Milwaukee’s fragmented education system?  Well, the budget process is long and I will withhold judgement until I see the specifics, but this feels like a movie I’ve seen before.

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