The Paradox of Voucher Schools
They work better than MPS schools for minority students. Yet most Democrats oppose them.
Strangely, this year’s spring election for Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction was dominated by the issue of school choice: whether the candidates support state-funded vouchers to students for tuition at certain private schools. Because of the prominence of attacks on the choice program in the election, I decided to take a look at student achievement at public and private schools serving a high-poverty student population.
For data, I used the 2018-2019 School Report Card issued by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). This is the most recent school report card; the 2019-2020 one was skipped because the pandemic shut down testing last year.
Based on test scores, student growth and other factors, the DPI comes up with an “overall accountability score.” This number is used to place the school into one of five “overall accountability ratings,” as shown in the graph below.
The graph shows the percentages of public schools (in purple) and private schools (in rust) in each of the five ratings. This chart suggests that private schools in the voucher program have been more successful as a group in meeting the needs of high-poverty students.
This impression is supported by taking the mean of the scores. The mean score of 74 for private schools translates to “exceeds expectations” and 62 for public schools “Meets few expectations.”
As noted, schools that accept vouchers are overwhelmingly concentrated in Milwaukee, both because that is where the program started and because the city has the greatest number of poor Wisconsin children. That may explain a seeming anomaly in Marquette Law School polling.
Over the years the predominant position of the American left has been opposed to proposals to allow public funding for poor students to attend private schools. This is illustrated by the response by Madison voters to a proposal to provide vouchers for private or religious schools, as shown in the graph below from August of last year.
In Madison opposition (in red) to vouchers beats support (in green) by a ratio of two to one. Milwaukee is almost as lopsidedly Democratic as Madison. Yet a strong majority of Milwaukee respondents liked vouchers. What explains this? Perhaps because many of the voters have had experience with voucher schools or had friends or family members who used vouchers.
The next graph summarizes answers to a poll taken in April of the previous year to a proposed freeze on voucher school enrollment (as well as suspending new charter schools). A strong majority of Milwaukeeans opposed the freeze. (Keep in mind, however, that by the time the pollsters sliced their sample to get the Milwaukee voters, the number was pretty small: 26 answered the poll below, 61 responded to the previous one.)
At the start of this article, I described this assault as “strange.” There are several reasons why.
First, the effort seems mis-targeted. While the Superintendent of Public Instruction is charged with administering the program and can certainly make life harder for school administrators, major policy changes come from the governor and Legislature. School board members have even less control over school vouchers.
A second reason is political. In attacking vouchers, the Democratic Party is attacking a significant part of its base. Most of the families sending their children to the group of high-poverty private schools are Black or Hispanic. Less than one percent are white. Do Democrats really oppose assisting poor non-white voters in seeking to improve their children’s educational progress?
Third, the voucher controversy crowds out issues that impact students in a more significant way and become an excuse for why school systems cannot become more effective. A current example is the federal pandemic grants to schools. As the next chart shows, the grants are calculated the same way that previous Title 1 payments were calculated—using district poverty—but the payments are much greater. For once, MPS benefits from its student’s poverty.
How can the money be best spent to help student achievement? Some things are obvious—upgrading technology and summer school—but $11,000 per pupil is a lot of money to spend wisely. Rather than the attacks on vouchers that dominated the campaign, it would have been more useful to hear the candidates’ ideas for how the DPI could help school districts to overcome the effects of the pandemic-caused reduction of in-person education.
Between 2001 and 2021, Milwaukee Public Schools enrollment has dropped from 97,985 to 71,510, a 27% decline. It is past time for the state and Milwaukee teachers unions and—surprisingly, liberal Democrats— to recognize that the present course is not working for MPS, stop trying to force low-income parents to send the kids to MPS, and take a serious look at how to compete with voucher schools.