Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Public Policy Forum on Vouchers: You're Both Wrong

The Public Policy Forum, a fairly even-handed policy think tank, came out with a report today that predicts there would be very little impact on the voucher program enrollment levels even if the enrollment cap was completely lifted.

The Journal-Sentinel has an article today on the Public Policy Forum report that makes it out like the report sides with school voucher proponents; however, one read through the actual report suggests that it doesn't really agree with either side of the debate.

According to the report: "Voucher advocates argue that denying students accessibility to voucher schools is cruel and detrimental to their education. Opponents argue that lifting the cap would increase total costs for K-12 education in the city and would negatively impact the public schools. The data indicate that neither scenario is very likely."

This is a very intriguing statement, the basis of which is that the annual enrollment increase in the voucher program has slowed in recent years--from a 36.5% increase in 1999-2000 to just a 2.8% increase in 2005-2006. Thereby, the authors of the report feel the program enrollment is reaching a leveling off point.

The report is also filled with a number of other factual nuggets of interest to those involved in the voucher debate:
  • Demand for voucher schools has never outpaced the availability of voucher seats
  • 4000 students did not renew their vouchers between Sept. 2004 and Sept. 2005 (a variety of reasons could've caused this from income to unhappiness with the program)
  • The individual voucher schools are becoming more and more racially segregated
  • The high school voucher program enrollment has seen the greatest drop in recent years
  • More voucher schools are not giving standardized tests than in the past (although the total is only up from 10 schools last year to 14 schools this year)
The policy recommendation offered by the report, however, is what's most interesting: "Keeping the cap in place only creates a false sense of demand," the report writes, "removing it would more accurately demonstrate the program's level of success in the marketplace."

I suppose what they mean is that the voucher enrollment cap makes the program seem more popular than it is in reality (the supposed effect of this is not discussed). Their suggestion, then, is to lift the cap completely to see what would happen. If enrollments soar, then it must be a successful program because that's what the marketplace will be telling us. If enrollments remain the same, as the report suggests they will, then the perfect enrollment level has been met--end of story, case closed.

Although the report's enrollment predictions may turn out to be correct, I don't think lifting the cap completely is a wise move from a policy standpoint, nor is it even necessary to prevent the "false sense of demand" the report claims currently exists.

While enrollment appears to be statistically leveling off, there is no guarantee it won't shoot up a year or two and then down again the next. This is especially true since more students will be eligible for the voucher program if the income eligibility cap is lifted and prior year enrollment rules are dropped, as both Democrats and Republicans support doing.

Plus, right now Milwaukee taxpayers pay more for a voucher student than they do for a MPS student--about $1000 more. If voucher enrollment is uncapped and therefore allowed to jump from one year to the next, the City of Milwaukee will never know for sure how much property tax revenue it will need for the program from year to year. This concern would not exist if Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's proposal was adopted, which would even out the score with Milwaukee taxpayers by allowing them to pay the same amount for voucher students as they do MPS students. But, up to this point, there has been little interest on either side of the aisle regarding Barrett's proposal.

Uncertainty is not something you want to encourage in public administration, and lifting the cap completely--despite the Public Policy Forum's projections--would create just that. However, I do think the facts of the report, specifically that enrollment is largely leveling off, should be taken into consideration in the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans concerning the future of the voucher program.

One possibility is by agreeing to a gradual increase in the program--18% in 2006-2007, 21% in 2007-2008, and up to 24% in 2008-2009, for example. If the enrollment numbers stick around 15-18% during that increase, then you can simply keep the cap at 24%, which would prevent the "false sense of demand" the Public Policy Forum report warns against because there will be a healthy buffer between supply and actual demand. There's no reason to lift the cap completely in order to provide an accurate sense of the program's demand. Plus, a gradual increase would control the administrative uncertainty that comes from going directly from a 15% cap to absolutely nothing, which is what Republicans are proposing.

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