Milwaukee Educators Debate Vouchers, As School Choice Reappears on National Stage

Dec 1, 2016

Milwaukee is home to the longest-running school voucher program in the country. And even though it is more than a quarter-century old, the system still generates plenty of division.

Before the election, Marquette Law School planned to host a conversation about lessons the city has learned about vouchers. Now the topic is even more relevant, because the nation may head down the path Milwaukee has followed for more than 25 years.

There’s no arguing, Milwaukee’s voucher program is here to stay. The topic at Marquette on Wednesday was how the system can best operate.

Moderator Alan Borsuk says the questions have heightened significance, now that a choice advocate is headed for the White House.

“Betsy DeVos, the chair of the American Federation for Children, was tabbed by President-elect Trump last week as his choice for secretary of education,” Borsuk explained to the sold-out crowd. “I suspect that name, Betsy DeVos, will come up in our conversation!”

DeVos did come up a few times. Her organization lobbies for voucher programs and one of its leading strategists, Scott Jensen, sat on one side of the stage. He’s also a former member of the Wisconsin Assembly.

Jensen and UW-Madison education policy professor Julie Underwood debated the merits of choice, and changes they’d make to the system as it exists today.

Underwood made the point that voucher schools aren’t necessarily better schools.

“My concern is when you have programs which are not good at the outset,” she said. “I mean, 40 percent of the choice schools have failed. And when I say ‘failed,’ I mean ‘closed.’”

Jensen agreed that bad schools should close. But, he added, some parents choose schools for reasons other than performance.

“We often think, okay, what is the best school for my child academically? But there are a lot of parents in this city who, their first choice is safety. Where can I send my kid to school that I know they’re coming home okay?” he explained. 

Other conversation highlights...

Jensen, on what he'd do differently with Milwaukee's voucher program: "I think we would look at different sorts of accountability measures than we originally had in the program. I think the regulations were too much focused on inputs, and not enough focused on outcomes -- because it's outcomes that are most important. I think we've learned that you can't just build a marketplace overnight. You can't have an education marketplace unless you have what we have in other marketplaces: consumer digest, that tells you what the best schools are...We've only now, sadly, 25 years in, are beginning to get to that level, where that information is available for parents."

Underwood, on the history of school choice : "Choice programs, in my mind, and doing research over these years, their roots lie in segregation. Choice programs originally were created in the South, after Brown v. the Board of Education, to avoid integration. That was the term that was used -- "choice academies" -- and they were intended so that students wouldn't have to integrate. In a number of Southern states, they closed the public schools, and gave children a voucher, or choice, so that they could go to private schools. And in those days, many private schools wouldn't accept African-American students. So those students had no choice. And, the U.S. Supreme Court did finally hold those programs to be unconstitutional, but the choice academy, or the voucher, has its roots in that kind of history."

Jensen, comparing his view of school funding with choice opponents like Underwood: "You see it as 'we have to fund the system,' and my belief is, we are funding the children. We are making a public investment in each child's future. And it doesn't change the cost -- indeed it saves money -- when a child gets a voucher to go to a private school. There's not a net increase in the cost to the taxpayers, writ large, if you have an expansion of the voucher program."

Underwood's thoughts on the President-elect's pick for Education secretary: "I think that of the names that we saw floating around, that [DeVos] was probably the least traditionally qualified nominee for Secretary of education...So, it's surprising in that fact. It's not surprising in that, it looks as if this is a signal of an interest in privatization, an interest in deregulation, because at least commonly, that's two of the things she is known for."

Jensen, a strategist at the American Federation for Children -- an organization DeVos chairs -- describes her as "smart, driven, demanding, visionary, practical and willing to listen."

And, he says, he's surprised his colleague wanted the job.

"Having been in public service and the sort of trashing you get, and the way it all works, I'm surprised she was willing to do it," Jensen says. "But she said to me, she thought this was...the best opportunity in her life to help kids."

Both parties addressed the impact vouchers have had on public schools – specifically, MPS.

Nearly a quarter of kids in Milwaukee receiving a publicly-funded education are using vouchers. And enrollment in MPS has dropped steadily.

Larry Miller, Vice President of the Milwaukee School Board, sat in the audience at Wednesday’s debate. Miller is critical of the voucher program, but says he knows it’s not going away anytime soon. So he simply wants more regulation.

“We [at MPS] have a process for closing schools. And we are putting huge pressure on each one of our individual school to improve. If you’re a voucher school, there’s no pressure,” Miller explained. “I say there has to be a significant ending of the drive-by, storefront voucher schools, and that we need to get to a quality school emphasis.”

Miller would also like the government to cap the amount of money it sets aside for vouchers – but that idea doesn’t look to be in the cards anytime soon.

President-elect Donald Trump’s signature education proposal is a $20 million dollar boost to choice programs nationwide. 

The cast in Wisconsin’s legislature is heavily voucher-friendly, too. But Scott Jensen predicts more money will head to public schools in 2017.

“Even though the Republicans picked up seats in both houses of the legislature, many of them campaigned on the notion that, ‘when I get back to Madison, our highest priority is going to be to increase funding for education,’” Jensen said. “I think that’s what the legislature will do.”

Milwaukee’s 25-year-old voucher program was the first of its kind in the country. More than 110 schools in the city participate, most of them religious.