The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the nation’s longest-running and largest publicly funded private and religious school voucher program. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau released a detailed state audit of the program, based on data for the 1998-99 school year. Passed by the legislature in 1990, MPCP in 1998-99 enrolled 6,050 students and cost $28.4 million.
Analysis of the audit figures has yielded startling information: approximately 40 percent of the money paid by Wisconsin taxpayers to private voucher schools last year was in excess of the amount charged to private citizens purchasing the same services.
This disparity is not caused by wrongdoing on the part of either the voucher schools or the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which distributes the funds; rather it is the result of a flaw in the payment formula that is part of the voucher law itself. Under this formula, private and religious voucher schools are paid not the tuition that is charged to self-paying or privately funded students, but the often significantly higher per-pupil expenditure, up to a maximum determined by the state each year. Last year, this dual-fee system, which is unique among all voucher programs, produced what amounted to a 40 percent surcharge to taxpayers to fund vouchers. In a program that cost a total of $28.4 million, Wisconsin taxpayers overpaid for private and religious school vouchers by more than $11 million.
This conclusion is particularly disturbing in light of other findings, or lack of findings, in the audit. The audit specifically noted that voucher schools’ academic performance and services to students with special needs could not even be evaluated, since participating private schools are not required to administer standardized tests, nor must they identify and report special-needs students. In fact, the state of Wisconsin eliminated a provision requiring academic evaluation of the voucher program’s performance in 1995, after initial state evaluations yielded mixed results. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and others have raised concerns about some voucher schools that are unaccredited, housed in unsafe buildings, employ poorly qualified staff, and appear to violate students’ rights. Particularly under these circumstances, the overpayment of millions of dollars to the voucher schools warrants the immediate attention of Wisconsin officials.