Will Flanders, Research Director
HOPE Christian Schools, a private Christian school network in Milwaukee, announced their intent to close their high school at the end of the school year. It’s a disappointing announcement because HOPE High represented just what is possible, with the right ingredients, when it comes to education in Milwaukee. With a student population that was more than 95% low income, all of their students for the past twelve years were accepted to college. Proficiency rates on state exams are twice those of Milwaukee Public high schools, like North Division, with similar populations of students.
So, what happened? Why is HOPE closing their high school doors?
Schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (as well as the state’s other school choice programs) receive significantly less funding per student than do traditional public schools in the same area. For instance, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) receives about $13,344 per student in state and local funds, while a school like HOPE High School receives just $8,946 per student. Not only is this amount lower than MPS, it is lower than any public school district in the state. And this doesn’t even take into account federal funds, which add $2,500 per student to MPS with a smaller amount going to private schools in the choice program.
To overcome this deficit, private schools are required to fundraise extensively, or limit the enrollment of students utilizing the voucher in the school in favor of tuition-paying students. These financial constraints tend to limit on the supply of private schools willing to participate in the state’s school choice programs because the voucher amount is, quite simply, insufficient for a typical high school education.
But this is a policy choice that can be fixed. WILL has been making the case for funding equity for several years. It’s not necessarily an easy reform, but an incremental step would be to fund students at the same amount in a particular district, potentially with weights applied in recognition of the challenges of educating certain populations. If this were the case, and HOPE Christian High School were receiving a sum closer to the $13,344 that MPS high school students receive, it is very likely Milwaukee would not be losing at high school that has a proven track record of success when it comes to educating low-income students.
Education reform advocates tend to champion the ability of private schools and charter schools to do more with less. We make the case that charter and private choice schools provide a better “bang for the buck” for taxpayers. We have also pointed out that the better performance of choice and charter schools as a counter to the public schools that never stop demanding more money. These things all remain true, but a better vision for education in Wisconsin is one where students aren’t valued less, or more, depending on what school they attend. Money can’t solve all of the problems in education. But students should be given an equal opportunity to flourish that ignores the name on the building. Anything less will result in the loss of more high-quality schools in the name of preserving the public education monopoly.