Why Milwaukee Voucher Students are Returning to Public Schools

Clarence Montgomery has talked to dozens of parents and guardians whose children have attended voucher schools in Milwaukee, and they all have said the same thing: they want the best education for their children.

And that’s why about 150 of them left those schools this past summer, opting to enroll in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) instead. “We had no idea how easy it would be to recruit people back,” said Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). “It shows the power of organizing.”

It’s hard to compete with the free iPads, Kindle readers, and other flashy gifts handed out by private school administrators to newly enrolled students, but MTEA is determined to provide parents with something more enticing than iPads: the best education for their children. And MTEA teachers know that’s what their students can get in public schools.

So this past summer, MTEA and MPS jointly hired and trained six canvassers, including Montgomery, and sent them into Milwaukee neighborhoods to have frank, information-fueled conversations with parents, grandparents, and guardians. Those canvassers found many parents concerned that their voucher schools didn’t provide services to students with disabilities, or after-school programs, said Montgomery. Others wished their voucher school would offer a full menu of art, music, and physical education.

At the end of the recruitment project, about 150 students return to MPS, and another 100 Head Start pre-kindergartners enrolled in MPS schools instead of voucher schools.

“The common theme was: I want the best for my child,” said Montgomery. “And when you give parents or guardians the opportunity to draw a broader picture of their options, they start to wonder if a private school is going to give them all the things their child needs.”

Since the state legislature created Milwaukee’s school voucher program more than 30 years ago, the program has paid for thousands of city students to attend private schools, of which 85 percent are religious. More than a billion dollars has been siphoned from the public school system to pay their tuition, including more than $50 million this year alone. But studies have shown that students don’t do any better in those private schools. In fact, it’s not such a great investment for the public—or those parents.

In Milwaukee, 11 percent of voucher students passed the state’s reading test last year, and 13 percent passed math. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee Public Schools – which take all students, no matter their special needs or disabilities or previous academic record – 14 percent of students scored proficient in reading and 19 percent in math. In a statement released at the time of the test results, MTEA President Bob Peterson told lawmakers, “Provide fair funding for our successful public school system, and stop throwing money away on underperforming vouchers.”

“The taxpayers are paying for a second, competing school system that doesn’t do as well as the one we already have,” Wisconsin state Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts told Politico last month. “It’s extremely irresponsible stewardship of tax dollars.”