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Study: Milwaukee voucher program a half-billion dollar winner

By   /   December 15, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MILWAUKEE — A new study says the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program will have  a $473 million economic impact on the Milwaukee area by 2035 because of higher graduation rates for voucher school students compared to their peers in Milwaukee Public Schools.

“There are many well-known benefits of graduating from high school,” Will Flanders, co-author of the study and education research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, told Watchdog in an interview. “You can have access to better jobs. You’re more likely to have health insurance and therefore likely to be in better health. You’re likely to have a better income and less likely to become reliant on social welfare programs.”

Photo by James Wigderson

BIG IMPACT: Will Flanders on the economic benefit of Milwaukee’s voucher school program: “You’re likely to have a better income and less likely to become reliant on social welfare programs.”

The study also found that the choice program will generate $26 million more in economic benefit to Milwaukee than similar students in MPS because they are less likely to commit a crime.

“People that don’t engage in criminal behavior are more likely to have the same sort of opportunities and effects on their life that graduating from high school can have,” Flanders said. “As well as, we look at victim costs. There is no victim if there is no crime. We look at court costs, savings to court, savings to police work.”

The MPCP is considered to be the nation’s oldest publicly funded private school voucher program, started in 1990 with seven schools and 337 students. Today the program has grown to 121 private schools and 28,188 students. To participate, the student must reside in the Milwaukee Public Schools district and family income must be less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line.

Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas, the other co-author of the study, said that to obtain an “apples to apples” comparison on criminal behavior, the authors used a previous study that matched 1,091 students from the voucher program with 1,091 students from MPS, using their neighborhood residence as the reference. “That’s important because families that collect in similar neighborhoods will be similar on observable characteristics such as their motivation level, which would otherwise bias our estimates,” DeAngelis said. “So we used one of the most rigorous matching procedures there is to get a comparable sample.”

Flanders quantified it.

“What we expect is a decrease of 960 misdemeanor offenses over the next 20 years,” Flanders said. “When we multiply that over the economic benefit of not committing a misdemeanor, we see about a $1.7 million net economic benefit of the choice program.”

“For felonies, the effects get bigger because the cost of a felony is larger to society,” Flanders said. “We expect a 694 decrease in felonies over the next 20 years and the economic benefit of that translates to about $24 million.”

Flanders and DeAngelis say this is a conservative estimate of the economic benefits because it does not take into account the prevention of multiple criminal offenses.

SEE RELATED: A new paper looks at school vouchers and lower crime rates

The economic benefit of the higher graduation rates was based on a previous study showing students who stay with the voucher program have a 4 percent higher likelihood of graduating. “We expect about 2,600 more kids to graduate over the next 20 years,” Flanders said. “And the economic benefit of that is very substantial, $473 million over the next 20 years.”

“If the choice program is able to grow more rapidly, then theoretically these numbers will be even larger,” Flanders said.

The motivation for the study, believed to be the first of its kind for the MPCP, was the experience of St. Marcus Lutheran School.

In 2014, St. Marcus attempted to purchase the unused Lee Elementary School from Milwaukee Public Schools to expand its operations as a school in the MPCP. The city of Milwaukee wanted St. Marcus to pay an extra $1.3 million over the purchase price to cover the impact to taxpayers because of the “funding flaw” of the impact of students leaving MPS for a voucher school.

The “funding flaw” is the amount property owners are taxed to cover MPS’s portion of funding the MPS share of the private school voucher. That amount is gradually being reduced until it disappears in 10 years.

SEE RELATED: Milwaukee makes it hard to buy its many empty school buildings

“Henry Tyson, the superintendent of the school, indicated there were these other benefits to the school that the city is not taking into account,” Flanders said. “He talked about graduation rates. He talked about the fact that the school had low incarceration rates. So this is something that has been out there but no one to date has quantified what the value of that is exactly.”

The study showed that St. Marcus will have a net $71 million economic benefit over the next 20 years, $64 million as a result of its high graduation rate and about $7 million because of the low incarceration rate. Had Milwaukee allowed St. Marcus to purchase the Lee Elementary facility, the economic benefit would have been double.

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James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based reporter for Watchdog. He is also an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub, and was formerly an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. James is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children.