Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Voucher Madness

Gov. Walker wants lots more choice schools, except in Republican districts. Why?

By - Feb 26th, 2013 11:51 am
Howard Fuller

Howard Fuller

Gov. Scott Walker had a nifty answer when asked why he wanted to extend vouchers to nine more school districts in Wisconsin: “It provides a viable alternative to low-income and middle-class families,” he explained. “If someone’s wealthy they have that choice to send their student to a private school.”

His answer came courtesy of longtime school choice advocate Howard Fuller, who would often note that wealthy people can choose to send their children to private institutions like University School.

In fact, very few parents avail themselves of this option. Take a look at the Milwaukee metro area. For every suburban child attending University School or Marquette University, there are ten or more attending public institutions: Nicolet, Whitefish Bay, Homestead, Brookfield East or Brookfield Central, Germantown, Greendale, or Germantown high schools, all public schools doing an excellent jobs of preparing students for college.

Legislators, too, send their children to public schools and Walker’s children have attended Wauwatosa public schools. And they have shown no eagerness to replace these schools with voucher schools.

Instead, Walker’s latest proposal was written in a way to assure it largely targets children in Democratic districts. Only districts with at least two failing school buildings receiving grades of D or F on the state report card, and that have at least 4,000 students, would qualify. Rather than looking to replace any school with poor grades (which would bring in a wide range of rural and smaller school districts), Walker has specified bigger districts, all of which are urban. Thus, the nine new districts that would qualify for vouchers are Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee.

It’s worth noting that this is not the county but the city of Waukesha, which is split pretty evenly between Republican and Democratic voters. Moreover, GOP legislators like Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) and Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, have already expressed concern about how far-reaching the proposal is and may find a way to exclude Waukesha or any other city Republicans are concerned about.

The fact is that most parents in Wisconsin are satisfied with their schools, and Wisconsin students outperform those of most states on tests like the ACT. That is not to say improvements shouldn’t be made, but the complete replacement of a public school hardly qualifies as a minor upgrade.

There is, moreover, little evidence that voucher schools lead to a better education. After studies showed voucher schools in Milwaukee had about the same or worse results than public schools, legislative supporters simply changed the argument, noting that choice schools are cheaper.

They are indeed a bargain for the state. Choice schools cost much less per pupil than MPS schools do. That’s one reason they have trouble surviving.  Those that have kept the doors open have to do all kinds of additional fundraising which can exhaust the staff. Fuller himself found this a challenge when he got personally involved in a choice school, as he confessed to Milwaukee Magazine.

MPS is offering a $41,000 starting salary for the new teachers it is recruiting. No choice school could possibly offer that kind of salary. Yes, Walker has proposed an increase in the per-pupil payment for choice schools, but the public schools serving most Wisconsin students, and the families of Republican legislators, will still continue to spend far more per pupil than choice schools. Voucher supporters talk about making the market work and letting parents choose, but ignore how the marketplace for teachers works. Their enthusiasm for choice schools is likely to vanish if the cost begins to approach that of public schools.

When asked by WUWM-FM about studies showing voucher schools don’t improve the lot of students, Fuller replied that the more important issue is that parents be able to choose. But there is a documented history in Milwaukee of parents choosing dreadful choice schools run by charlatans who were simply in it for the money. Even after Fuller successfully pushed for more state oversight of choice schools (in essence admitting that the “marketplace” didn’t result in the best schools being chosen), there are still voucher schools that are not transparent about test results and other data.

What seems most remarkable about Walker’s rush to increase vouchers is that this comes just a year after teacher unions were destroyed. One of the big arguments in favor of school choice was that it eliminated the constraints caused by unions. Well, those constraints are gone now. And one of the big arguments in favor of Act 10 is that it would free school districts from teachers unions and allow them freedom to spend their tax dollars in the wisest way.

The passage of Act 10, along with the big cuts in state funding for public schools, represented a revolution in how schools in Wisconsin operate. We’ve barely had time to even begin evaluating the impact on schools and students in this state.  So why pile on more change before we know the impact of the last whirlwind?

When you strip away all the rhetoric, the push to funnel ever more money into vouchers is a strategy to replace better funded, more transparent schools overseen by publicly elected leaders with cheap schools and poorly paid teachers controlled by the invisible hand of an economic marketplace that has failed to pick the better schools. As a small experiment, it was worth trying. As a wholesale replacement for countless schools, it is beginning to look like madness.

Short Takes

-My colleague Dave Reid’s story on Walker’s massive borrowing scheme for highways was based on an estimate that Walker would borrow $662 million for highways, but the latest reports now show he wants to borrow $824 million, which will drive the transportation fund’s debt even higher.

-Kudos to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for its discovery that Sheriff David Clarke’s ad urging people to arm themselves was paid for by taxpayers. The story also noted that we are paying for his public service ads discouraging speeding, texting while driving and drunken driving. Two questions: do the ads mention Sheriff Clarke, thereby also operating as a campaign promo for him? And is there any evidence such ads have any impact on driver behavior?

-The Journal Sentinel did a remarkable flip-flop with an editorial opposing the ending of the residency requirement, after supporting this in 2011. The editorial noted that Walker made this a free standing bill in 2011 rather than slipping this policy item into the state budget as he’s now doing. But the rest of the column seemed to take back most of the arguments the editorial board made in 2011. An interesting turnabout.

Categories: Murphy's Law

19 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Voucher Madness”

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Walker is a scummy guy, but I don’t really have a problem with voucher schools. The unfortunately truth is that most MPS schools are terrible. I just don’t have a problem with vouchers that would keep families in town. As long as there is oversight and we keep crackpot religious schools out of the system… then what’s the problem?

  2. A. Teacher says:

    Here’s the problem. There is an average cost “per pupil” in a school district. But not every kid costs the same to teach. Students who require more interventions (special ed, emotional/psychological disturbance, physical handicap, etc.) cost more to teach. So…

    A) “Choice” schools have “choice” of which students to accept. And they don’t accept (or don’t *keep*) high cost students.
    B) Public schools have to take *and* keep all comers.
    C) Choice schools pull awaythe low cost students, and the tax $$$ that go with them, leaving public schools with higher cost students to educate and few $$$ to do it with. Also, with fewer staff, because allocation is tied to student numbers.
    D) Choice schools have NOT been shown to be any more effective than public, even with their cherry-picking advantages.

  3. MadisonParent says:

    I’m sorry, Tyrell, but when you say “The unfortunately truth is that most MPS schools are terrible” is speaks volumes. Let’s put aside your grammar error for a moment and focus on what you’re really saying: nothing. You’re generalizing about “most” Madison Public Schools without offering any valid arguments while at the same time, completely ignoring what the article is exposing: pay for play with our educational system.

    How many public schools in Wisconsin have you attended? When did you attend them. Do you have children in them now? What other schools are you comparing them to? Can you cite non-biased national rankings for MPS performance?

  4. Sonja Rein says:

    ‘Choice’ was ridiculous to begin with. It took away valuable funds from the public school system and systematically began to destroy the system. It should never have been started in the first place. Mr. Fuller should have realized he was being duped back then.

  5. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Naturally, the GOP areas are run by Conservatives, the democratic areas are run by Liberals and have failed the kids. If it had not been for people being able to send their kids to CHOICE schools they would have left Milwaukee and it would have gone bankrupt.
    Their leadership is bankrupt. Besides MPS and the high unemployment and no jobs in the near future the city will fail. It has been run aground by the Let in the last 50 years.
    Name me Barrett’s accomplishments? Any? top Ten?
    I have told Clarke that he should find out how much in taxes, that Bruce Murphy paid last year, and increase his spending on PA’s to save the city.
    Clarke for president.

  6. George Mitchell says:


    You are not dishonest, so your claim about the evidence re school choice benefits is just ignorance. As but one example, one of the most prestigious scholarly journals is publishing findings this month that choice students have higher rates of attainment, i.e., graduation and college attendance. Your claim on test scores is wrong. Provide some citations and I will refute each of them.

  7. Stacy Moss says:

    WOW. Their is nothing “ridiculous” about choice. Really, I mean , why can’t a brilliant educator start a school. Just a school, not a system. Obviously we need a sewer system, but schools where more than 90% of the kids fail algebra and there are “code red’s, lockdowns.

    Let’s start with the Fuller quote.

    Rich people don’t exercise their “right to choose” by going to University School. They move to suburbs! I think that is what Fuller meant. I can tell you, I grew up in one of those suburbs, and we never considered it a “public school”. It was an exclusive club that my parents paid a lot of money to get into. If this is what Howard Fuller meant then your points are not well taken..

    Second…. the children in suburbs start in a different universe. I benefited more from my safe and consistent environment than I did from school. I had two parents (ok they should have gotten divorced but that made little difference to me, at least I never had to worry about them… ). The kids in the choice schools, well, for some of them it is the only choice they can make. There whole lives are hamstrung by insecurity, chaos, and misery of the first order.

    Third, show me a city in America where the urban schools have improved that are not the Mayor’s responsibility. Yes, I blame the School Board, a totally undemocratic body that is NOT really accountable to the public.

  8. stacy moss says:

    For the record, when Howard Fuller was talking rich people making choices that are denied to poor folks I am pretty sure, I will bet you 50 dollars, that he was not referring exclusively to University School and the likes.

    He meant the SUBURBS.

    If that is the case, our argument needs some adjustments.

  9. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Stacy you are right, but there are urban areas that have good schools and some that actually do great job on inner city kids. Watch “Waiting for Superman”.

  10. Chris Byhre says:

    Families are being given a choice for their children. They are not being forced to join the voucher program and send their kids to a private school. Why would anyone be against offering a choice of schools to families? Given the choice between sending your child to a failing school with poor graduation rates or a school that is actually educating our future leaders can not possibly be seen as a bad thing. There have been some voucher schools that were not run well and did not deliver. Many of them are no longer in existence. Too bad the same can not be said for the failing public schools.

  11. George,

    What is your perspective on this report?


  12. Scott Jensen says:


    You should check the Bluebook. Republicans represent most of the school districts in the Governor’s proposal. The Governor’s proposal would add 9 school districts. A majority of them are represented mostly by Republicans – Waukesha, West Allis, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, and Green Bay. Plus, the Kenosha School District has a Republican representing part of it . So overall, Republicans represent most of the districts not Democrats.


  13. George Mitchell says:


    The report you cite (similar to findings in a Public Policy Forum report about that time) is flawed. It does not compare like groups of students. I will post a link to further commentary on that issue and on that specific report. The nation’s leading independent researchers have noted the flaws.

  14. George Mitchell says:

    Test scores are important, but not nearly as important as “attainment,” measured by high school graduation and post-secondary education. One of the most prestigious scholarly journals has just published peer-reviewed findings of the scholars who studied Milwaukee’s program for five years.

    The takeaway:

    “The results here suggest that students who used a voucher to attend private school in 8th or 9th grade were more likely to graduate high school. They were also more likely to enroll in a 4-year postsecondary institution after graduating and, when applicable, to persist in that 4-year institution beyond the first year of enrollment.”

  15. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Let us examine the basics on CHOICE:
    1. Parents and Kids prefer those schools.
    2. They have lower truancy
    3. They cost us half as much.
    4. Kids are improving.
    5. They have higher attainment rates
    finally the presence of these schools keep parents in teh city vs those that left at the start of busing for better schools. We should blow up MPS, give all the kids vouchers and let all of the schools compete for the kids. Replace MPS with much smaller districts.

  16. bill says:

    Why does the school choice issue have the same smell as Tommy’s W-2. A small group of insiders like G. Randall etc. in W-2 become wealthy placating black opposition in MKE designed a system w/dubious results but an ideological triumph. Compare this to S.C., originally authored by D. Steinmetz, who couldn’t care less about the poor in MKE but was very concerned about the declining enrollment and shuttering of Catholic schools grade schools. Now we have a proposed expansion of SC, again backed again by a small group of insiders (w/financial interests??), backed by well heeled contributors pursuing an ideological vendetta against the public schools and the neutered former unions.

  17. Chris Byhre says:

    Very informative Bill, thanks. Great facts to back up the accusations. Very well thought out and presented argument. You could write for Urban Milwaukee full time.

  18. Stacy Moss says:

    Jeramay…… I don’t think anyone should expect ALL choice schools to be better than public schools on average. They are experiments. Many will fail, should fail, but we should learn from these failures. Everyone has a choice, teachers who work for less money for example. It’s about the freedom to do something, which runs the rise of being really stupid. We all know that from personal experience

    More generally, I wonder how many commentators would believe Walker if he found the cure for cancer. This discussion is infected with the extreme partisanship that makes it impossible to learn from a challenging point of view.

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