WILL BLOG | Milwaukee’s Failing Education System – Part 2


This is the second in a series of blogs over the coming weeks that will investigate ways for improving Milwaukee’s failing education system.  Previously, we examine the concept of Education Savings Accounts (ESA). Today, we address an “enhanced voucher.”

It is concerning that there are thousands of children currently attending failing schools in a city that is arguably the birthplace of education reform. While the debate over failing schools has been framed as a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) problem (and MPS is certainly troubled), there are also low-performing private and charter schools. Among all schools in Milwaukee with over 80% free-and-reduced lunch and 80% African American students, the average reading proficiency is a shocking 7.3%. While charters and private school choice have helped many students, educational failure in Milwaukee is not just a sector problem. It’s a Milwaukee problem.

We wonder whether these issues could be addressed with an “enhanced voucher,” targeted at students attending failing schools regardless of sector. This could create incentives for reform at failing schools or the development of new educational opportunities for at-risk students – without imposing a one-sized-fits all solution. Here’s how it could work:

The enhanced voucher would be provided to parents of students enrolled in failing schools (charter, private, or traditional public school). It would be equal across all sectors and above the current per-pupil funding received by MPS ($11,827). In order for schools to be eligible for this optional program, they would be required to submit a “turnaround plan.” The plan would explain how the school plans to use the additional resources to improve school performance. Additionally, in exchange for the enhanced voucher, the school would have to show improvement in a stated period (e.g., three to five years) or lose access to this additional funding.

For Milwaukee Public Schools, this would mean a small increase in resources to implement the community schools model advocated by MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver. The community schools model works under the theory that disadvantaged students need more support than is provided during the regular school day. In order to foster greater community involvement and greater access to social services, community schools are open longer hours, including weekends, and offer additional programming directed at student achievement, youth development, and community service. There is at least some evidence that these programs can improve academic outcomes.

For private and charter schools, this would represent a significant boost in funding – finally on the level of MPS – that would allow for the implementation and experimentation of after school and summer programming, as well as wrap-around services. Such services have been shown to be effective in closing the gap between disadvantaged minority students and others.

Because the “enhanced voucher” is more of a market-based solution that empowers parents and allows experimentation of “turnaround” plans – rather than a government imposed top-down solution imposed from Madison – it could lead to some benefits, such as:

  1. Competition of ideas –No one sector has a monopoly on good ideas for improving poor performing schools. This is a tremendously difficult task. With an enhanced voucher targeted to students attending failing schools, different schools from different sectors would have the resources and incentives to implement their preferred turnaround plans. These may take different forms, but that is a feature, not a bug. In the long-run, the most successful turnaround plans would rise to the top and could be replicated by others.
  1. Equitable funding for all schools– Without including federal money, students in Milwaukee’s public schools currently receive $11,827 on average whereas voucher students receive an average of $7,366. The enhanced voucher would give them the opportunity to compete with MPS on an equal playing field.
  1. Incentive to improve – Some will argue that we should not throw more money at bad schools. But schools receiving the enhanced voucher would be subject to some form of accountability, i.e. the threat of losing the enhanced voucher, if the school does not improve. This would unify the school around a turnaround plan and incentivize them to hit performance benchmarks. With additional resources to do so, there would be no excuses for failure.
  1. Parental choice – Parents in Milwaukee already exercise an extraordinary amount of school choice, whether it is through open enrollment or the MPCP. This plan respects the choice of those parents, who for one reason or another, send their child to a failing school. But it adds services and programming and the expectation of results. Their children will no longer be left behind.

However, this plan presents several issues that would need to be considered:

  1. Should we fund schools – or students? Some might argue that eligibility criteria for the “enhanced voucher” should be based upon a child’s socio-economic status or at-risk profile. By having eligibility based upon attending a failing school, more students could opt in to failing schools. To the extent these turnaround were not successful, this could represent a perverse incentive After all, if the end goal is to help children – rather than brick and mortar buildings, shouldn’t we give parents the resources and decision-making power (see our post last week on Education Savings Accounts).
  1. How do we define “failing”? This is a thorny issue. We argue for a measure of ‘failure’ that accounts for student growth as well as achievement. Recognizing that many students in MPS and MPCP are far behind academically, it is vital that any measure of school failure account for where students are starting from. While a school may not obtain a high level of overall proficiency, they may have demonstrated significant growth among their students. This cannot be discerned by simply looking at the average of “snapshot” test scores for any given year.
    However, to make determinations about a school based solely on test performance will fail to take into account positive culture, character development, safety, and other potential benefits of a school that “fails to meet expectations.” One important goal here is to remove nuance from closure decisions—if a school fails to meet expectations, the loss of additional funding will not be at the discretion of a bureaucrat or politician. It’s unclear how this can be accomplished.
  1. Does more funding lead to better student outcomes? – In tight budget times, where does the additional money for an enhanced voucher come from? More importantly, will it actually lead to improved student outcomes? On the one hand, if there is to be an increase in school funding during the next legislative session, an argument can be made that it should be directed towards innovation in Wisconsin’s worst schools with the most at-risk and difficult students. This may simply require more resources to turnaround.
    On the other hand, previous WILL research has shown that – at least on a statewide public schools basis – increased K-12 public school spending does not lead to a proportionate increase in student achievement. This suggests that Wisconsin’s traditional public schools are already funded at a high level. In addition, funding for Milwaukee Public Schools already ranks high nationally when compared to other urban areas. However, all failing schools in Milwaukee are not homogenous and it’s possible that a targeted investment into supplemental programs with proven track records could lead to better outcomes (previous WILL research looked at all public schools in Milwaukee).
  1. Who approves the turnaround plans? State agencies like the Department of Public Instruction have generally shown an animosity to choice and charter schools, but may still be in the best position to evaluate education policy proposals. A better alternative might be the creation of a panel of practitioners from both the public and private sector with knowledge of what works in education as the evaluator.


Collin Roth is Research Fellow at WILL and Will Flanders, PhD, is Education Policy Director at WILL.


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