Begun in 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the nation's oldest publicly-funded school voucher program. This school year, the estimated cost of MPCP is $59.4 million. Of the program's cost, 45 percent is funded by a reduction in state aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools, and the other 55 percent is taken from the state's general purpose revenues.1
Wisconsin taxpayers may have a variety of opinions about MPCP, but whether they support vouchers or not, they are paying a painful price for it. Instead of receiving vouchers to cover the tuition that they normally charge students, private schools that participate in the program receive the often significantly higher per-pupil expenditure, up to a maximum amount set by the state. In fact, no other publicly funded voucher law pays such a 'surcharge' to private schools. Even Partners Advancing Values in Education-a Milwaukee-based, private-school scholarship program that provided scholarships from 1998-1999-paid only half the cost of tuition.2
The surcharge serves as an additional drain on taxes dollars that could otherwise be devoted to public schools. In the 1999-2000 school year, for example, taxpayers overpaid Milwaukee private and religious schools by at least $16.4 million. Over a two year period (from 1998-2000), this overpayment reached nearly $28 million. In all, more than three-quarters of the 91 voucher schools that participated in 1999-2000 received payments that exceeded their tuition costs per pupil. During the back-to-back school years of 1998-1999 and 1999-2000, 46 percent of the voucher program's cost was absorbed by these overpayments.3
For example, while a parent wishing to send her child to Urban Day School would have been asked to pay tuition of $1,000 for the 1999-2000 school year, the state of Wisconsin was far more generous-paying Urban Day $5,080 per student. This surcharge amounted to $4,080 per student. Voucher payments to Messmer Catholic School were $2,106 higher per student than the $3,000 in tuition that the religious school charges parents.4
The voucher surcharge is being paid legally due to the formula in the law. At a time when state officials must make major budget cuts to close a $1.1 billion state budget shortfall, permitting this surcharge to linger would be inexcusable.5 The impact of this budget's crisis on public schools and the children they teach will be worsened unless the law's formula is revised to eliminate these overpayments.
As the budget debate moves into high gear, State Senator Russ Decker has taken the lead in insisting that this wasteful voucher surcharge be eliminated, redirecting these millions of dollars to fund legitimate priorities. (For example, $11 million of the $23 million freed up from changes in MPCP would be returned to the city's public schools for special education and other needs.6 ) The issue isn't whether one supports or opposes MPCP. After all, even many voucher supporters would be shocked to learn of the millions in tax dollars that are being wasted by Wisconsin's one-of-its-kind surcharge. Decker's proposal to revise MPCP does nothing to change the number of children who participate in the voucher program, but it does eliminate a surcharge that unnecessarily worsens the state's fiscal condition. Decker's proposal deserves the support of his fellow legislators and the governor.