How the Milwaukee Voucher Program Was ‘Designed to Fail’

Published December 30, 2013

Milwaukee has a 23-year-old “priceless” tuition voucher program restricted to low-income students, district-run chartered public schools, and some privately funded vouchers (PAVE). It is the nation’s oldest and largest publicly funded tuition voucher program, and a lot has been said about its results, including several incredible prominent claims that its outcomes should be decisive because it will tell us whether “school choice works.”

That’s why the dueling studies, and the competing interpretations of them, deserve our attention.

Those prominent claims were incredible because a program “designed to fail” was tiny for its first eight (1991-98) heavily studied years—limited to just 1 to 1.5 percent of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students, and the lucky applicants that received a voucher could use the vouchers—worth much less than the MPS per-pupil expenditure—only at non-sectarian schools, which at the time was mostly just three of six shaky schools. The program rules said eligible private schools could cash the vouchers only if they accepted them as full payment, which amounts to price control, a devastating “pricelessness” restriction that persists to this day with just one negligible exception.

A 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision allowed more vouchers and sectarian schools to enroll voucher students. But with the continued ban on copayment (price control), voucher users must outperform unsuccessful voucher applicants with voucher funding of slightly more than half the amount supporting the MPS students.

The voucher users have outperformed the MPS students that were denied vouchers by small margins in some subject areas, but in those subject areas they have been no better. And other studies have found small so-called “competitive effects.” A better label would have been a broader “systemic effects” category, which can include additional effects besides rivalry for students.

Little Real Competition
The program rules give MPS schools little tangible reason to behave competitively. MPS schools suffer little funding loss when students leave with a voucher. Lacking a tangible basis for competitive behavior, sorting effects are a more likely the basis for the small MPS improvements attributed to the voucher program.

Sorting occurs when parents transfer their children to schools they think will work better for them. That leaves more instructionally homogenous, more teachable classrooms behind. The children that leave are the ones for whom the futile, assigned public schools’ attempt at a one-size-fits-all instructional approach is least effective. Their departure helps them and the children that stay behind in the assigned school.

Surveys of parents of voucher users have repeatedly shown them to be very pleased, which means the program has at least worked as an escape hatch. Nearly all studies have shown voucher students reap small gains in the tested academic areas, plus, probably, customization benefits in the choice-making criteria that standardized tests cannot capture.

The escape hatch nature of the small, restriction-laden Milwaukee program is further confirmed by the assumptions and findings of several studies, including the purported “last word” on the program’s effects. Earlier findings showed the “systemic effects” (impacts on MPS effectiveness) have been small, which led the authors of the “last word” to assume unsuccessful voucher applicants were not affected by the voucher program—an implicit “no systemic effects” assumption. And at least in terms of the standardized test scores, the voucher users were not greatly impacted: “the achievement growth of students in the voucher program was [slightly] higher in reading but similar in math.”

Opening for Critics
With school choice advocates having repeatedly “bet the farm” on the Milwaukee outcomes—a truly lousy market experiment—the pro-establishment spin doctors are swooping in for the kill. For example, from Diane Ravitch:

“Anyone who looks at the NAEP reports on urban districts will see that after 22 years of vouchers, charters, and competition, Milwaukee is a poster child for the failure of vouchers, charters, and competition. The students in those schools all perform at about the same level. No sector is better.”

We have no examples of genuinely competitive school markets, but the concept is widely deemed to have been tested in Milwaukee and found ineffective. Since a small program produced small effects, choice advocates’ bear hug for the Milwaukee program may ensure we never will see genuine competition at work in K-12 schooling markets—a scary thought.

By the way, part of Ravitch’s critique rests on the wrong basis. Success or failure of school choice is not a matter of which “sector is better,” or whether current private schools, with much less money per child, perform better for similar children than current public schools. Our current school system ensures most members of both sectors are unacceptably low-performing. Ravitch notes Milwaukee’s restriction-laden small programs have not put Milwaukee students’ outcomes ahead of the urban areas that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress metro area test comparisons. That comparison needs to be done more rigorously, but she may turn out to be right about the Milwaukee effects, though her overly broad interpretation of the effects is probably wrong.

The Milwaukee program “was designed to fail,” and though it helped the program participants, it yielded only the small effects we could legitimately hope from a small, restriction-laden program.

John Merrifield ([email protected]) is editor of the Journal of School Choice and professor of economics at the University of Texas-San Antonio. This article is reprinted from the National Center for Policy Analysis blog, with permission. Image by Light Brigading.