Wisconsin deserves full transparency about vouchers

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) has been promising transparency about voucher programs, but he and his allies are delivering half-truths instead.

Evers’ proposed budget caps enrollment in three voucher programs for low-income students and phases out another one for special-needs students. He insists his freeze is “not an anti-voucher issue” but “a transparency issue.” Evers’ supporters claim it’s nothing more than a responsible time-out to calculate the programs’ costs, which Evers wants listed  on taxpayers’ property tax bills to promote “the best transparency possible."

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If so, then Evers should insist that both sides of the ledger be listed, the costs and the savings for Wisconsin taxpayers. He doesn’t.Neither does a much-ballyhooed memo prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) for state Representative Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb). Pope claims the memo shows “runaway costs” and “a snowball effect of vouchers negatively impacting Wisconsin’s public schools.” 

First of all, if Pope’s claim that vouchers negatively impact Wisconsin’s public schools were true, then we would see evidence from the broad body of research on school choice programs. We don’t. Of 26 studies examining the competitive effects of private-school choice programs, 24 find that test scores for students choosing to remain in public schools improve, including four studies of Milwaukee’s programs. 

Secondly, Pope’s latest perennial request to the LFB asks for only the program’s costs and doesn’t ask for a single voucher program savings calculation. That omission, however, didn’t stop dozens of media outlets from repeating the ominous headline that vouchers, along with charter schools, “consume $193 million in state aid.” Those outlets also failed to mention that an adjustment to the Milwaukee voucher program’s so-called “funding flaw” has been phasing out its general aid cost for years and will be eliminated by 2024-25. Eliminating that cost, currently $42 million, reduces the Pope report’s combined $119 million voucher programs cost by more than one-third.

Even so, that $119 million voucher cost represents just 1 percent of Wisconsin’s $11.5 billion in total local, state, and federal public-school funding — at most a snowflake effect on public schools, not the negative “snowball effect” Pope describes.

What’s more, whenever students leave a public-school district, a portion of its funding is reduced no matter where they enroll next. In fact, the number of Wisconsin students transferring to other districts through open enrollment alone far outnumbers voucher students, nearly 61,000 transfer students compared to 40,000 voucher students. And that number doesn’t include students whose families moved out of state.

Yet Evers and choice opponents like Pope aren’t calling for a freeze on families moving.

More fundamentally, when students leave, not only do district costs go down, they also keep a portion of funding that isn’t based on student enrollment. This means per-pupil funding increases overall, and class sizes decrease. To be sure, public schools face short-term fixed costs. They need to keep the lights on, cover buildings and maintenance costs, as well as debt service and other costs. Yet not all costs are fixed. If they were, then the state would only need to fund a school’s fixed costs and not variable costs associated with enrollment growth, such as textbooks, supplies, and school personnel salaries and benefits. It wouldn’t matter if the school enrolled 500 or 5,000 students. Of course, this is not the case.

In Wisconsin, total per-pupil public-school spending averages around $13,000. Short-term variable costs total roughly $8,100 per pupil, which is higher than the average cost of Wisconsin low-income vouchers, $7,300. Average short-term variable spending per special-education student is about double the cost of students not receiving special-needs services, which is more than $4,000 higher than the $12,000 special-needs voucher.

Thus, when students leave, districts can offset some or all of their revenue reduction by decreasing some or all of their variable costs for those students. This helps explain how most voucher programs save money, including Wisconsin’s programs.

For example, accounting for the variable cost savings a recent EdChoice analysis finds that the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs alone have saved taxpayers and school districts $345 million to date.

Eliminating or freezing Wisconsin’s four voucher programs would deny students the education options that are working best for them. Taxpayers would also see their tax bills increase as their districts absorb students, largely from disadvantaged backgrounds, who were participating in the voucher programs.

Absent those programs, approximately 90 percent of scholarship students would have to return to public schools. That would cost taxpayers and school districts over $470 million in new public-school spending — nearly four times the cost of all four voucher programs combined.

Providing Wisconsin taxpayers better transparency about vouchers based on both sides of the balance sheet would be a welcome improvement. The state’s voucher programs save money and pretending otherwise is a half-truth at best. Worst of all is denying students the education options that work best for them under the guise of advancing transparency.

Vicki Alger, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C. She is the author of “Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.” Martin Lueken, Ph.D., is the director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice.