Enrollment in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, still the largest voucher program in the nation, grew 12 percent in 2011 after Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation to expand education options for Wisconsin families.
According to a February report from the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum (PPF), student enrollment in the MPCP increased by 12 percent in 2011-2012—roughly 2,200 students—over the previous school year. This was the largest expansion since 2006, which also reversed an enrollment decrease the program experienced in 2010-2011.
Enrollment in the program has expanded steadily since its beginning in 1990. It was the first vouchers program in the nation.
“[MCPC] started with just seven schools, and now we have 107 schools,” said Anneleise Dickman, research director at the PPF. “Over the past 10 years the number of students using vouchers has more than doubled. It was about 11,000 ten years ago, and now it’s 23,000.”
Tripling Income Eligibility
This year’s boost comes courtesy of a series of bills Walker, a Republican, signed in 2011. Notably, the governor nearly tripled what families could make in a year and be eligible for the program, from 175 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent, said Christian D’Andrea, a MacIver Institute policy analyst. That’s from $22,350 in annual income for a family of four to approximately $67,000.
“Given that a billionaire could move to Milwaukee and draw twice as much money from taxpayers by enrolling their child in a public school, it never made sense to means-test the voucher program at such a low level,” said Matt Ladner, a senior researcher at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. At approximately $6,400 per voucher, the MPCP program costs far less than the Milwaukee public schools’ approximately $15,000 annual per-pupil expense, he noted.
“The increase in eligibility therefore represents an important step in the right direction,” Ladner said, in bringing to bear the benefits of competition on the local and generally abysmal public schools.
Erasing Caps, Penalties
The expansion also included a “once-in, always-in” provision “that will ensure that children will have access to their schools even if their parents are offered higher paying jobs,” D’Andrea said. That was an important change so families weren’t penalized for moving up the career ladder, he said.
The program's enrollment cap was also lifted, allowing all students who qualify financially to accept vouchers. In addition, schools located outside the city of Milwaukee were made eligible to participate.
“Geographic restrictions for schools were eliminated,” D’Andrea said, “meaning that private schools outside of the city could now apply for and, if approved, accept and enroll voucher students.”
Opening to a Nearby County
The governor also approved a proposal to open a similar voucher program in Milwaukee’s neighboring Racine County, which also has dismal public schools.
The 2011-2012 school year was the first for that program. Eight schools are participating, enrolling 228 students. That’s close to the program’s 250-student cap, which will be lifted in 2013.
“[The program expansion] has been great news for parents in two of Wisconsin's lowest-performing school districts,” D’Andrea said. “Families in Milwaukee and Racine are no longer trapped within failing neighborhood schools.”
PPF’s report shows mixed results on academic achievement for Milwaukee voucher students compared to local public school students.
A March 2011 study  by independent evaluators at the University of Arkansas, however, revealed increased academic achievement for Milwaukee voucher students. Compared to their peers who attended four years of high school in Milwaukee public schools, those who participated in the MPCP for four years of high school graduated at significantly higher rates, 75 percent compared to 94 percent. Previous studies have found similar results since the program began.
“More students have greater options to find the school and the environment that suits their learning the best,” D’Andrea said. “It's tough not to call that a win.”