Don’t Give Up on School Vouchers!

Published July 23, 2008

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As some educators and school choice advocates begin to question whether school vouchers can reform public education, a new study of Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program — the nation’s oldest and largest city-specific program — concludes it has had a positive effect on the city’s public schools and will become even more influential in the near future.

The study, “Can Vouchers Reform Public Schools? Lessons from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” was released today by The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit research organization. It finds that most voucher programs are not universal programs but simply “rescue” efforts that offer a life-line to poor parents in struggling school systems, what Nobel Prize laureate Milton Friedman characterized as “charity” vouchers.

“Since existing voucher programs are limited largely to charity vouchers, or rescue efforts, it is not surprising that they have produced no dramatic improvement in the public schools,” writes author George Clowes, a senior fellow for education studies for The Heartland Institute. “Before writing off universal vouchers, it would seem prudent first to actually try them.”

Clowes shows how competition from voucher schools in Milwaukee, despite being hobbled by legal challenges, a voucher amount that is less than half the public school’s per-pupil spending, and enrollment caps, has prompted the Milwaukee Public Schools to implement a long list of reforms, including before- and after-school programs, more Montessori schools, improved teacher selection procedures, decentralization of budgeting authority to local schools, and greater influence of parents in local school councils.

According to Clowes, the voucher program gave school reformers including public school officials considerable clout in their negotiations with public school system interest groups. The results include a high school graduation rate that improved from 49 percent in 2002-03 to 58 percent in 2006-07. Black and Hispanic graduation rates during this period increased more than the white graduation rate. This was accomplished despite rising minority and low-income enrollments as a share of total MPS enrollment.

Critics of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, says Clowes, overlook the fact that steadily increasing voucher school enrollment had little apparent effect on MPS because of growing K-12 enrollment during most of the program’s history. Since 2003-04, however, MPS enrollment has been falling while voucher school enrollment has continued to rise by an average of 1,500 students a year. Public schools are finally being exposed to serious competition for students.

“The next few years are likely to reveal the reforming power of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on the Milwaukee Public Schools, since only now is the success of voucher schools posing a genuine competitive threat to existing public schools. The city’s public schools may begin to improve more rapidly in response to this enhanced competitive environment,” Clowes concludes.

“Can Vouchers Reform Public Schools? Lessons from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program” is available for free online at The printed report is available for $19.95 by calling The Heartland Institute at 312/377-4000.