Minding the Gaps: You Get What You Pay For

Minding the Gaps is a monthly Wisconsin Public Education Network blog from Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) Board Vice President Jim Shaw examining educational gaps or educational inequity in Wisconsin.

What’s the best way to close the gaps? Vouchers or teachers? In the past 10 years Wisconsin increased spending on voucher programs by 179%. Individual vouchers increased from $6,442 in 2011 to $8,353 in 2021, and total cost now exceeds $213 million for more than 40,000 students (Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau). Over the next 10 years, vouchers could shift another $800 million away from public schools.

In contrast to vouchers, teacher compensation has not fared well. After the passage of Act 10, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) reported that teacher inflation-adjusted annual teacher salaries declined by an average of $2,095, and benefits by $5,580. Wisconsin now is below average in teacher compensation and near the bottom in increases in teacher salary. Under Act 10, the cumulative impact of salary and benefits losses over a 30-year teaching career exceeds $150,000. Wisconsin increased state spending on vouchers and decreased spending on teachers.

The oldest voucher program in the nation was created in Milwaukee in 1990 and expanded to the entire state in 2015. Despite 31 years of vouchers, the gaps facing students and families living in poverty, and students and families of color, persist. The rationale for vouchers is familiar: Public schools are failing, public schools are a monopoly, competition improves schools, vouchers are a low-cost reform, parents know best, etc. The research on whether vouchers close gaps is mixed at best. When controlling for variables like wealth, parental education, and neighborhood poverty, public schools outperform private schools. According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, voucher students actually perform worse than students enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools, but voucher schools report higher graduation rates and parental satisfaction. How vouchers save taxpayer money is unclear since state funding per voucher is $8,353 and state aid per public school pupil is $6,295. Since wealth is correlated with achievement, removing income caps for vouchers would do little to address gaps.  

The research on whether teachers impact achievement is clear and long established. Fifty years ago the Coleman Report cited teacher quality as the most important school factor related to achievement: “Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling” (Rand Corporation, 2016). A teacher is estimated to have three times the impact of any other school factor including the school facility and leadership. Of course, parents, family, neighborhood, and student characteristics matter even more. The impact of reduced teacher compensation on teacher quality is less clear. Over the past nine years, Wisconsin saw a decrease of nearly 3,000 teachers and lower teacher-student ratios (Wisconsin Budget Project). The Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee found the number of teachers leaving the workforce increased 22.5%; most teachers leave the profession for money or family obligations; 62% of replacement teachers are in their first year of teaching; and enrollments in teacher preparation programs are down 27.9%. During the pandemic the teacher shortage has become a statewide crisis, disrupting student learning, safety, family life and local economies.   

You get what you pay for: more vouchers and less teachers. The impact of vouchers on student learning is negligible. The impact of a good teacher is unquestioned. Vouchers or teachers? Mind the Gap! Pay for more teachers!

Dr. Jim Shaw is a retired educator, former district administrator, UW professor, education consultant and author. He is currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.

About the author: Wisconsin Public Education Network

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