Vouchers: The “half-the-price” myth
April 28, 2009
By Jay Bullock
A state-mandated study released in March confirmed, for the second year in a row, that schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program-known as the voucher program-did not perform better than Milwaukee Public Schools. This killed of one of the myths underlying the program, which is that voucher schools offer consistently higher achievement.
That led some longtime voucher supporters, such as former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller, to call for increased transparency, greater accountability, and tougher requirements for voucher schools.
But some voucher supporters simply switched myths; now they say voucher schools do the same job as MPS, but for half the price. They base this on MPS’s per-pupil spending (about $13,000), roughly twice what the state sends to voucher schools (about $6,500).
That per-pupil figure results when you take MPS’s total budget and divide it by the number of students. Since a significant portion of the MPS budget goes to state- or federally-mandated bureaucracy, legacy costs for retirees, providing community services like playgrounds and safe places for kids to be after school, that simple calculation is misleading (most voucher schools do not incur those costs). A different state-mandated study, a financial audit of MPS released in April, noted that only 58 percent of funds were “instructional spending,” which is a number much closer to the size of a voucher. If MPS could report a per-school budget, we might get a more accurate picture of what it costs an MPS school to educate an MPS child.
Fortunately, earlier this year the district did just that, producing a detailed breakdown of the per-school cost to educate a child in MPS. For the 2007-08 school year, a choice voucher was worth $6,501. That same year, the base per-student disbursement-what MPS paid schools to teach a student enrolled there-for high schools was $6,474, almost exactly the same. Other grade levels are not significantly different: $6,710 for middle schools, $6,220 for K-8s, and $6,245 for elementary schools. In other words, MPS spends about what voucher schools do to educate an average child.
On top of that base per-student disbursement, MPS schools incur added costs from things like transportation, building maintenance, and the big one, special education. That leaves totals ranging from a high of $25,700 per student at Marshall High School to a low of $6,539 per student at the Milwaukee School of Languages. With costs that varied and complex, it is misleading at best to suggest that voucher schools do what they do at half the price, especially since many of those schools offer few or no special education services, rely on parents or MPS for transportation, and use buildings owned and maintained by other organizations.
One of the city’s best-known voucher advocates, Brother Bob Smith of the Messmer family of schools, offered a possible reason voucher schools might appear to get better results at lower costs. He told the audience at a conservative get-together two years ago that his students have to “make the right decisions, or make them somewhere else.”
Voucher schools do, indeed, sacrifice all or a portion of the voucher funds for kicking out a disruptive or unmotivated student, but it’s a luxury MPS does not have. So long as MPS educates every child who walks in the door, and is required to follow rules that voucher schools don’t, it will remain a myth that voucher schools can educate a child for half the price.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at folkbum.com. Contact him at email@example.com.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.