Milwaukee voucher program has lessons for Utah
Posted: 4:53 PM- MILWAUKEE - At one Milwaukee private school, students in coats and ties eagerly volunteer to multiply fractions at the board.
At another school downtown, teachers recently weren't paid for two months, and running the school was a day-to-day struggle.
These are examples of Milwaukee private schools where most, if not all students, attend on vouchers. They city's voucher program is significantly different than what's been proposed in Utah. But as one of the largest, longest-running voucher programs in the nation, is Milwaukee's program, in some ways, a preview of what could come in Utah if voters pass Referendum 1 on Nov. 6?
As in Utah, the answers depends largely on whom one asks.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has been around for 17 years, but time generally hasn't healed the chasms between its supporters and opponents. Both sides shouted much of the same rhetoric 17 years ago that's now filling Utahns' ears.
They said a voucher program would drain money and resources from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). They said competition from the program would force public schools to improve.
Now, 17 years later, some see successes, some see failures and others see the voucher program as a work in progress.
"It's an issue that's as emotional and polarizing, in some ways, as it's ever been," Howard Fuller, former MPS superintendent and director of the pro-voucher Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University said in a taped interview at a recent conference. "An honest person has to say it's been mixed."
Those on both sides of Milwaukee's voucher debate agree there have been some sub-par schools.
And the market hasn't always corrected itself. Sometimes the state has had to step in.
The state closed one school run by a convicted rapist, for financial reasons, and shuttered another after the administrator used voucher money to buy himself two expensive cars. The state closed another school after students sustained minor injuries in an accident on their private school bus, which was driven by an unlicensed driver, said Bob Soldner, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction director of school management services.
Students remained in those schools until the end.
"The schools that are terrible are astonishingly terrible," said Cynthia Ellwood, principal of Hartford University School, an MPS school.
Students stay even when a school publicly teeters on the brink of closure.
The Institute for Career Empowerment Inc. was one of seven schools featured in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article in September for failing to submit test scores to researchers. The state withheld the school's funding until the school corrected the problem.
As a result, Career Empowerment teachers weren't paid for nearly two months.
"It's a struggle," Career Empowerment teacher Gabrielle Mallory said before the school received its money. "I told the kids, 'If you keep coming to school, we'll keep coming to school.' "
The school's co-founder and administrator Rev. Richard Mills called it all a misunderstanding.
Voucher opponents, both in Milwaukee and Utah, however, say such situations are inevitable in a system with few requirements.
In Milwaukee, someone looking to open a school needs an occupancy permit, has to work toward attaining accreditation and has to meet health, safety and financial rules. Voucher school teachers need only high school degrees.
In Utah, schools accepting vouchers would not have to be accredited. Utah teachers also would not necessarily need degrees.
Inexperienced teachers and administrators sometimes don't realize how difficult running schools can be, Ellwood said, and students can suffer as a result.
More than 1,000 voucher students scrambled after their private schools closed during the 2005-2006 school year, said Public Policy Forum Research Director Anneliese Dickman. From September 2004 to September 2005, 28 percent of Milwaukee voucher students did not renew their vouchers, not including students who graduated, according to a Public Policy Forum brief.
"It's been incredibly disruptive," Dickman said. "This left a sour taste in a lot of parents' mouths."
Milwaukee voucher proponents say such schools constitute only a fraction of an otherwise successful program.
"Nobody says let's shut down the public school system because of a few bad schools," said Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin. "We fully support bouncing schools that aren't compliant with the law."
The majority of Milwaukee's more than 120 voucher schools don't have headline-grabbing problems. In fact, some seem to stand as models.
Parents clamor to send their students to Messmer High School, an 81-year-old Catholic school where about 86 percent of students are on vouchers, said Robert Gottschalk, Messmer director of financial aid and scholarships.
The quote, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," hangs over the school's entrance, and colorful, step-by-step instructions on how to apologize, take compliments and listen cling to the walls of many classrooms.
A volunteer business teacher - a former business owner - teaches students to read The Wall Street Journal each day.
"Any school can teach English or algebra," Messmer English teacher Adam Gonzalez said. "But this kind of thing is just as important."
Gottschalk said about most of the school's students - overwhelmingly black and low-income - go on to four-year colleges.
"At public school, it was an easy grade," senior Martia Hunt said as she finished her calculus homework during lunch. "Here, you have to work for it."
Pupils seem similarly content at Hope Christian Schools, where about 95 percent of the students attend on vouchers.
Colorful mobiles celebrating God's creation of animals hang from the walls along with pictures of students with the years they'll enter college.
At Hope, all teachers give out their cell phone numbers.
"If an upper-grade student doesn't know how to answer a math problem, we would expect them to call their math teacher," Superintendent Kole Knueppel said.
Voucher proponents say private schools simply have more flexibility.
"Because we are small, I can see a group of students struggling with something, and I don't have to go through a lot of red tape to help them," said Denise Pitchford, CEO Leadership Academy director of education.
Fuller, at Marquette's Institute for Transformation of Learning, said voucher schools have saved many students from bleak futures.
"You have to look at how many lives have been saved because this program exists," Fuller said.
Though the Institute for Career Empowerment has its problems, it, too, has saved lives, founder Mills said.
Empowerment senior Albert Bankhead said he'd be in trouble without the school.
"To tell you the truth, I probably wouldn't even be in school," Bankhead said.
Anecdotes about the program's successes and failures abound, but are students doing any better academically in private, Milwaukee voucher schools?
Did competition from private schools force public ones to improve?
It's difficult to tell whether students who accept vouchers do better than their public school peers. Milwaukee public and private school students don't have to take the same tests.
Without test scores from private schools, researchers have, for the most part, been left with public school scores to analyze. MPS schools saw a jump in tests scores for two years following expansion of the voucher program in 1998. Some researchers attribute that jump to competition from private schools, though others say competition has not improved MPS scores over the long term.
"I'm one of those people who believes we may have oversold that point," Fuller said in the taped interview.
But some, including an MPS leader, say competition has changed public schools in other ways.
"It has challenged MPS to look at itself and how we're doing things," said Aquine Jackson, MPS chief officer for school and community support. "We're no longer the only show in town."
He said since the voucher program started, MPS has increased its number of K-8 schools, all-day kindergarten programs and afterschool programs, all in response to parental demand.
Not all the changes have been for the better, however
One thing Utah vouchers foes fear is that private schools will refuse to take expensive special education students, leaving them in public schools with less money to educate them.
Milwaukee voucher schools accept special education students, but many choose to remain in public schools, which are often better equipped to help them. Jackson said MPS's special education population went from about 12 to 15 percent of all students before vouchers to more than 20 percent now.
MPS also has closed some schools because enrollment is declining due to a variety of reasons, including vouchers. Schools that have stayed open sometimes have bigger classrooms as a result, Soldner said.
Milwaukee's program now enrolls more than 17,000 students in more than 120 schools. That's nearly 20 percent of MPS's enrollment.
"Their pot of money is shrinking faster than their costs are," Soldner said.
He said the voucher program cost Wisconsin about $110 million last school year.
The Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst in Utah estimates the voucher program would cost Utah nearly $71 million in its 13th year while saving the state at most $28 million for the students it wouldn't have to educate in public schools.
If voters pass Referendum 1, Utah will become the first state in the country with a statewide, universal voucher program.
"If it passes, it will happen all over this country," former gubernatorial candidate and author Richard Eyre said in a recent debate. Just as Utahns look to Milwaukee, other states would look to Utah.
But Milwaukee's program - and the city itself - differ in many key ways from Utah.
Milwaukee's program serves only low-income students, and vouchers cover the entire cost of tuition. Milwaukee also has inner-city problems such as gun violence that many Utah schools don't face.
"Utah doesn't have the same set of problems, but it does have parents and some schools that aren't working," said Mitchell with School Choice Wisconsin.
Voucher opponent and Utah State Board of Education Chairman Kim Burningham, however, said Milwaukee hasn't been so successful that Utahns should consider it a model.
"Schools in Milwaukee are just like the schools here," Burningham said during a debate. "Some of them are great and some . . . are abysmal."
As Utahns consider vouchers, Milwaukee is poised to enter the 18th year of its own experiment.
"No matter what's happening in Milwaukee," Fuller said, "the question at the end of the day is what do the citizens of Utah feel would work in Utah."
How the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program works:
- More than 17,000 students are now enrolled at more than 120 private schools on vouchers.
- The program is only open to students from low-income families.
- The state, which runs the program, gives roughly the same amount for each student. Private schools accepting vouchers cannot charge voucher students additional fees for tuition, books or registration.
- Teachers must have graduated from high school or earned the equivalent of a high school diploma.
- Schools must work toward and achieve accreditation.
- To open, schools must get a city-issued certificate of occupancy, provide evidence of financial viability, meet health and safety requirements and provide proof the school's administrator participated in an approved fiscal management training program.
- Schools must give fourth, eighth and 10th-grade students a nationally normed standardized test each year and then report scores to researchers.
- Schools have to meet at least one of the following goals: At least 70 percent of students in the program must advance one grade each year; average attendance must be at least 90 percent; at least 80 percent of students must demonstrate significant academic progress; or at least 70 percent of families in the program must meet parental involvement criteria set by the school.
- Schools must get an annual, independent financial audit.
How Utah's voucher program would work:
- To qualify for vouchers, students would have to be at least 5 years old before Sept. 2 of the year they wish to enroll; born after Sept. 1, 2001; have been enrolled as a full-time student at a Utah public school on Jan. 1, 2007; or not have lived in Utah as of Jan. 1, 2007.
- Families would be eligible for $500 to $3,000 for tuition per child per year depending on income.
- By accepting the vouchers, students would waive their right to receive certain services from schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
- Schools would have to meet health and safety requirements and have a physical location in Utah where voucher students could attend classes and have direct contact with teachers.
- Schools would have to contract with an independent certified public accountant to report on whether schools meet certain financial requirements when the school applies to accept voucher students and then every four years after that.
- Schools would have to give students an annual norm-referenced test that would provide a national comparison and would have to report those results to parents and, upon request, to others.
- Teachers would have to have bachelor's degrees or higher or have special skills, knowledge or expertise in the subjects they would teach.
- Teachers would have to complete a criminal background check. - Schools would have to have at least 40 students and could not operate in a home or a state-licensed residential treatment facility.
- Public schools would continue to receive money for students who transfer to private schools for five years after the transfer or until the student graduates, whichever comes first.