September 1, 2015; Wisconsin State Journal

Long before the second Bush administration launched “No Child Left Behind,” individual states were creating policies to use market forces as a driver toward stronger public education systems. While much attention has been given to the growth of charter schools, they have not been the only strategy put to use. Numerous states have turned to vouchers and tuition tax credits for students they saw as trapped in low-performing schools. In theory, vouchers and tax credits would be particularly helpful to low-income families desiring access to private schools previously only available to the wealthy. In practice, it appears they work quite differently. We are learning that creating an educational marketplace is not cheap, and that not all programs are effective.

Wisconsin was among the first states to implement a voucher program over 25 years ago. A program originally designed to give a limited number of low-income families in Milwaukee the opportunity to attend well-performing private schools, year by year it has been expanded to include tens of thousands of lower- and middle-class households statewide, with little oversight of the quality of the schools they choose to attend. Molly Beck, reporting for, captured the challenge in a recent article:

The state will spend $258 million in the 2016–17 school year on private school vouchers, a new estimate shows. At the same time, the amount of state aid sent to public schools will be reduced by $83 million to offset the voucher spending, for a net cost to the state of $175 million, according to an analysis drafted by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau in response to a request from Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse), who opposes vouchers. The amount spent each year on vouchers will have increased by 77 percent next school year over 2011 levels…

The Center for Media and Democracy provided more detail on the growth of Wisconsin’s voucher program.

Governor Scott Walker’s 2011–2013 budget slashed funding for K-12 education by $792 million—the biggest cut to education in Wisconsin’s history. That Walker budget also removed the enrollment cap on the Milwaukee school voucher (or “parental choice”) program, which allows K-12 students to attend private and religious schools on taxpayer money, much of which is taken from the public school district. The program currently enrolls 26,000 students at an annual cost to the state of $191 million (an average of $7,300 per child) funneled to private and for-profit schools each year, taking $61 million of that directly from the already struggling Milwaukee Public Schools. Walker has also launched new voucher programs for Racine and statewide that now enroll about 3,000 students and cost another $20 million a year.

And although the stated objective of vouchers was to allow public school students access to better schools, in Wisconsin, those benefitting have mostly been families already paying private school tuitions. Last year, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reported that “Seventy-five percent of eligible students who applied for taxpayer-funded subsidies to attend private and religious schools this fall in the statewide voucher program already attend private schools, according to data released Tuesday…Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) said the original justification of the voucher program was to give students attending struggling public schools the opportunity to attend private schools. Instead it has created a system in which taxpayers are paying for private education, he said.”

With similar goals, Arizona began a voucher-like program of tax credits 18 years ago. The Arizona Republic recently took a look at how this effort has performed.

Its architects, who promised the program would primarily benefit special-needs and low-income students, have watched it grow far larger than they ever imagined. A program that legislative budget staff in 1997 estimated would cost $4.5 million a year now tops $140 million. And that doesn’t include $50 million in tax credits handed out separately for public-school extracurricular activities… Despite its explosive growth, the program has failed to keep its promise of primarily aiding special-needs and low-income students, and of expanding school choice. Meanwhile, as it grows, critics say, it is further depleting funding for public schools…Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students. And 32 percent of the scholarship money given through the individual tax-credit programs goes to children of “low income” families…. The biggest criticism of the tax breaks is that many of the scholarships are given to more-affluent families who would send their children to private school even without a tax credit. The result, critics say, is money being drawn away from both the state-funded public schools and poor and special-needs students who need the money to attend a private school.

With little evidence of improved educational outcomes from those students who these programs have assisted, it would appear that the beneficiaries are primarily the schools that can now receive state educational funding rather than the children they educate. As the head of Wisconsin’s education department puts it, “The budget continues to walk away from our constitutional obligations to educate all students in local public schools.” But it does “fully fund voucher expansion for private school kids and priorities of special interests.”—Marty Levine