High Percent of Milwaukee Voucher Students Have Special-Needs

Published March 15, 2012

A new study finds the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the oldest and largest voucher program in the country—serves many more special-needs students than previous reports have stated.


Though analyses from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction estimate the number of special-needs students MPCP serves is 1.6 percent, researchers Patrick J. Wolf, David J. Fleming, and John D. Witte conclude the correct number is most likely between 9 and 11 percent.

“We’re quite certain that the 1.6 percent figure is low,” said Witte, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

National estimates put special-needs children at approximately 5 percent of K-12 students, on average.

“Opponents of the program have seized on [DPI’s] data,” explained Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. “Most commonly, this is used to rebut an argument made by supporters of the MPCP that it gets the same or better results at half the cost. Opponents like to claim that the MPCP does not serve all students, as [the Milwaukee Public School system] is required to do.”

Private Schools Avoid Label
To get its figure, DPI counted a choice student as special needs if the student received a disability accommodation while taking the annual state test.

“DPI had to rely on the only data that they had,” said study author Patrick Wolf, of the University of Arkansas. That data, however, did not accurately reflect students in private schools, since “in the private schools many don’t have accommodations.”

The reason for this, the authors explain in their report, “Special Choices,” is that private schools operate under different rules than public schools. Public schools are legally obligated to identify special-needs students, and they receive extra funding for these students from federal and state governments.

Over the past 35 years, special-needs designations have risen 60 percent. One in eight public school children receives special education services. The special-needs classification that has grown the fastest and largest is also the mildest. It includes conditions like dyslexia and difficulty processing sight and sound. It has grown 211 percent in the past 35 years and includes 38 percent of all special education students.

Private schools do not get extra government funds for educating special-needs students. So many private schools do not try to identify these students and often hesitate to do so because of the stigma that comes with the designation, Wolf said.

More Accurate Numbers
To get a more accurate accounting of the number of special-needs students MPCP serves, the researchers used methods “based on actual disability classifications of students from their time in [Milwaukee Public Schools] and in MPCP,” Wolf said. The researchers had the advantage of using a five-year database of MCPC students, which allowed them to compare the rate of special-needs designations for students who switched between MPCP and MPS, and vice versa.

For each student that attended both MPCP and MPS during the five years, the researchers asked school principals to indicate if a child had a special need. Based on principal reports, among those students who attended both MPS and MPCP, just over 9 percent were designated with a special need while enrolled in a voucher school, compared to 14.6 percent while attending public school.

The researchers also asked principals to report special-needs status for MPCP students who did not switch between private and public schools. Principals indicated 3.75 percent of these students could be classified as special-needs.

Based on both statistics, the researchers determined a weighted average, estimating anywhere from 7.5 to 14.6 percent of MPCP students likely had a special need.  

The authors also surveyed parents of MPCP students, 11.4 percent of whom reported their child had special needs.

Argument Reversal
Bender says the study findings “take away the argument that the MPCP is selective when it comes to students with disabilities.”

“[Choice schools] having far more students with disabilities actually creates a new issue for discussion,” he said. “The MPCP schools already receive far less for a student without a need for special services, but are actually serving thousands of students with special needs on $6,442, far less than public schools spend per child.”


Image by Clarkson SCAMP.