Americans in any state would be deeply upset to learn they were being charged far more for a gallon of milk than the price clearly indicated on the supermarket shelf. They would be particularly angered to discover that they were paying this inflated price at the same time that other consumers were being charged the lower, normal price. Yet, amazingly, this is what is happening in Wisconsin, where taxpayers across the state are being overcharged to pay for Milwaukee's private-school voucher program.
Equally surprising is the reason behind this voucher "surcharge." This wasted money isn't the result of criminal wrongdoing by state officials or the voucher schools. As a matter of fact, this hefty surcharge is being paid legally due to the formula in the voucher law. Instead of receiving vouchers to cover the tuition that they normally charge students, private schools that participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) receive the often significantly higher per-pupil expenditure, up to a maximum amount set by the state. No other publicly funded voucher law is structured to pay such a premium to private schools.
Wisconsin taxpayers may have a variety of opinions about the MPCP, the nation's longest-running publicly funded private-school voucher program. But whether they support the vouchers or not, taxpayers are paying a painful price for it. A review of data from the 1999-2000 school year reveals that Wisconsin citizens are paying private and religious schools a per-pupil amount well above the tuition rates of most of these schools. These data show that taxpayers overpaid these Milwaukee private and religious schools by at least $16.4 million. In all, more than three-quarters of the 91 voucher schools that participated in 1999-2000 received payments that exceeded their per-pupil tuition.
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-more specifically, its taxpayers-was far more generous, paying the private school $5,080 per student. This overpayment, or '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.1
While this surcharge is unique-no other voucher program pays private schools more than the price of tuition-it is not a new development in Milwaukee. Indeed, in August 2000, People For the American Way Foundation released a report that analyzed data for 1998-1999, the first school year in which religious schools were allowed to participate in the Milwaukee voucher program. This earlier report revealed that, due to the way in which the MPCP law was written, Wisconsin taxpayers had paid private and religious schools $11.5 million over and above the tuition rates they charge parents.2 By the next school year, as more parents made use of the program, this surcharge had climbed significantly to $16.4 million. In all, the surcharge paid by taxpayers during these back-to-back school years (1998-1999 and 1999-2000) reached nearly $28 million. Moreover, during these years, 46 percent of the voucher program's cost was absorbed by such overpayments.
People For the American Way Foundation and many Wisconsin citizens oppose the voucher program for a variety of reasons, including its diversion of public tax dollars away from public schools and its weakening of the fundamental constitutional principle of separation between church and state. Of critical concern even to taxpayers who support the MPCP, is the fact that the law allows not simply voucher payments, but overpayments to go to private schools who are in no way accountable for how the funds are spent, nor for measuring their impact on student achievement-making it impossible to discern how the 61 religious schools receiving overpayments have used these public dollars. There is nothing to prevent them from using these additional state dollars to subsidize the tuition of their non-voucher students, or to pay for the construction of a new chapel or to purchase bibles. Furthermore, the Milwaukee voucher surcharge continues to divert precious funds away from the public schools, even as they face potentially crippling budget cuts as a result of the fact that the state is facing a projected budget shortfall of $1.1 billion.3 This budget crunch and the impact it could have on public schools will be made even worse by this surcharge- a painful price that taxpayers and children are paying for vouchers.