Vouching for Vouchers


Opponents of school voucher programs argue that the proposal is untested and unrealistic. But since 1983 Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, has been quietly using vouchers to fund day care and early education for children in low-income families.

A recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute reports that 3,757 poor children in Milwaukee County obtain day care each year through vouchers worth $2,854 each. Under the program, which costs $16.4 million annually, parents can choose from 236 for-profit and not-for-profit agencies and 1,264 licensed family day-care providers.

Before the program, the county contracted out for day care, and parents could choose from only a handful of providers. This was inconvenient for parents who did not live near any of the centers. The study notes that parents "have a track record of successfully choosing which among many providers would be best for their child or children."

Ed Konkol, assistant administrator of the county's Youth Services Division, says the vouchers have freed government supervisors from the program's day-to-day details. Under the old system, county employees had to negotiate with contractors who threatened to cut off services unless they received more money to pay for cost overruns. Now providers compete for vouchers, which are distributed by an independent agency.

Dick Bushman, manager of the bureau that oversees the voucher program, says it has cut costs by about 20 percent, primarily by eliminating the problem of excess capacity due to absenteeism. Under the voucher system, those absent from day care do not cost the county anything because they do not redeem their vouchers.