Milwaukee's Vouchers Leave Public Schools More Than $29 Million Short

HARD DECISIONS AHEAD FOR SCHOOL OFFICIALS

Today as Milwaukee begins the new school year, the city's public schools are faced with a looming financial crisis brought on by the diversion of millions of dollars from the public schools' operating funds to pay the cost of vouchers for private and religious schools.

The State Department of Instruction unofficially estimates that 6,000 students will be participating in the private school vouchers program. Schools officials will have to slash spending on the public schools to pay for these vouchers. With a price tag of around $4,900 per voucher, that adds up to an overall loss to the public schools of $29.4 million -- a figure equal to the cost of approximately 500 experienced teachers or more than 850 new teachers.

"This could be a financial knockout punch delivered to 100,000 Milwaukee children who depend on the public schools for their education," said the Rev. Dr. Rolen Womack, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Milwaukee and a member of People For the American Way’s national African American Ministers Leadership Council. "The numbers foretell a harsh future for our schools -- one that is likely to include fewer teachers, fewer computers, fewer textbooks and research resources, and an overall decline in the quality of education for the vast majority of our children."

"The damage we can see coming in Milwaukee should give nightmares to every state legislature that is being wooed down the voucher path," said Elliot Mincberg, Legal Director of People For the American Way Foundation, which is challenging the diversion of public money to religious schools. "The fact is, vouchers are a very costly experiment and it’s our children who will be forced to foot the bill."

In Milwaukee, the impact of this loss of funds is multiplied by a provision in the law that requires the schools to pay the cost of the vouchers even for children in grades K-3 who have never been enrolled in a public school. These children were never included in the enrollment figures on which state aid to schools is based, yet the schools will see their state payments reduced by the cost of their vouchers.

The shortfall in Milwaukee could actually grow during the year if more parents elect to move their children into the voucher system after the school year has started. The program was created to provide vouchers for up to 15,000 students. If the maximum number of parents opt to participate in the voucher program, this would produce a cost to the schools in this and future years as high as $73.5 million -- or nearly ten percent of the school operations budget for this year.

A loss of this magnitude is likely to send school officials scrambling to cut expenditures to make up the difference. While school officials have not made public any contingency plans at this point, the FY99 budget, which is due to be finalized in October, contains a number of initiatives and expenditures that may be imperiled by the need for budget cuts. These include:

  • Expanding choice within the public schools by expanding popular programs such as special focus high school programs, the Montessori program, all-day kindergarten, and the Early Childhood Center. The estimated cost of this expansion is $374 million.
  • Continuing summer school remedial programs in the core academic subjects of reading, math, science, writing, and social studies, which were reinstated this year after a six-year absence. The FY99 budget includes $6.7 million for this purpose.
  • A special initiative to improve reading at the twenty lowest performing schools, which is budgeted at about $50 million for the year.
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