The Impact of Voucher Schools
How school choice has -- and hasn’t -- worked. Second in a series on education in Milwaukee.
Twenty years ago, Milwaukee grabbed the attention of the nation by instituting the most significant departure from traditional public education in generations: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more commonly known as “choice,” or “voucher schools.”
Say “school choice” to someone in Los Angeles or Chicago, and they will most likely think of a general array of public options, including charter schools. But in Milwaukee, “choice” commonly refers to the voucher program, wherein private schools gain public dollars through a “voucher” of $6,442 of public money credited to a particular student. Today, about 23,000 students in the city of Milwaukee attend 107 schools using vouchers. It the longest running, and widest in scope, of any voucher program in the nation.
Of the students currently receiving vouchers, 71 percent attend religious parish schools, most of which existed long before the program’s inception. Most voucher schools are relatively small and serve a predominantly low-income student population. Until the voucher program was expanded in 2011, all voucher schools existed in Milwaukee. Now a small number exist in first-ring Milwaukee suburbs and Racine.
The 2011 expansion of the program not only grew the program’s geography beyond the city limits, but also expanded the pool of those eligible to receive a voucher by significantly raising income limits on participation. Today, a solidly middle class family can qualify for a voucher, but the vast majority of voucher participants are still low income. Voucher schools must take all students at random who apply to attend on a voucher.
Unlike charter schools, which are found throughout the country, voucher schools, private and unique to Milwaukee, have not been as extensively studied.
A five-year study conducted by a team of researchers based at the University of Arkansas sought to track the academic success over those five years of a group of voucher students and a matched group of Milwaukee Public School students of similar characteristics. The report found no significant difference between voucher and MPS students’ achievement over four of those years until the final year, when reading scores in voucher schools ticked upward. But the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau reviewed the research and found several flaws in the study’s methodology of matching and tracking students, concluding that not much could not be inferred from the study’s findings.
Much education research aims to isolate and account for “outside” factors, such as demographics, to zero in on the effect of one factor, in this case vouchers, on student achievement. This makes for good social science, where a particular approach is thought of almost in medical terms, like a remedy for a condition. But most people, and especially most parents, don’t see something like a voucher as a remedy. They simply want to know: “can I find a good school for my child?”
No one, whether parent or policy maker, should use standardized test scores as the sole metric of whether a school is good. But Milwaukee’s voucher schools have, for the past two school years, taken the same state test that all public schools take. Since the state test is given only to voucher students in a particular private school, not all students, it’s not a direct comparison to MPS, where the state test is given to all MPS students, including those from middle class homes. Nevertheless, these scores might be the best thing we currently have to compare the relative quality of Choice schools versus MPS schools.
Taken as a whole, the voucher schools on average have similar test score results to Milwaukee Public Schools. Roughly the same percentage of voucher-receiving students were achieving at proficiency or better than all students in MPS in 2010-2011, but the following year, voucher students had somewhat lower test scores in reading and significantly lower scores in math.
Taken school by school, the distribution of quality schools in the voucher system and MPS is similar. Roughly the same percentage of voucher and MPS schools score higher than state averages in reading, and roughly the same percentage are very low performing. There is evidence that tighter accountability standards, including requiring that schools receiving vouchers be accredited and take state standardized tests, has led to better results and fewer bad schools being allowed to participate.
So is the program a net win or loss for the city? Clearly Milwaukee needs more high quality schools, and the voucher program has unquestionably added quality schools to the menu of options open to parents. But the program has also given rise to schools no better than, and in some cases worse, than the public school options nearby.
And while the $6,442 voucher is much lower than the per-pupil expenditures for MPS, a quirk in how the State accounts for private school students, widely known as the “funding flaw,” means city residents arguably pay more than we should per voucher student, while non-Milwaukee residents benefit.
Milwaukee’s grand experiment put power directly into the hands of low-income parents in the form of a voucher. But after 20 years we now know that this power alone is not enough to create excellent schools. The excellent schools that exist in each sector show that it takes a community committed to excellence to make it happen: educators, parents, volunteer board members and others, all committed to a common vision and doing whatever it takes, and held accountable for meaningful results beyond a test score.
This excellence exists among all different kinds of schools in our city, both public and private, charter and MPS. Contrary to popular belief, excellent schools are not an extreme rarity in Milwaukee. Much excellence is hidden in plain sight, or waiting to be unleashed. Our challenge is to grow and replicate this excellence and make it the norm in every community and every neighborhood.