Latest Milwaukee Evaluation Affirms School Choice Works

Published April 23, 2011

The latest report on Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program finds a significantly higher percentage of students who participate in the program graduate from high school, compared with their peers in the city’s public schools.

The fourth study in a long-term evaluation of the MPCP by researchers John F. Witte, Deven Carlson, Joshua M. Cowen, David J. Fleming, and Patrick J. Wolf, found 94 percent of students who participated in the program throughout their school career graduated high school. The graduation rate in the Milwaukee public school system is 74.8 percent.

Broader Implications for Reform
Wolf, who heads the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, says the latest evaluation offers some significant findings for school reformers.

“We had two important findings: Independent charters are delivering clear achievement gains for kids, and the voucher program is boosting educational attainment in the form of higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates,” Wolf said.  

On the downside, although voucher students had significantly higher graduation rates than their public school peers, MPCP students did not realize higher academic achievement.

Though small, academic achievement in the surrounding public school system has also been on the rise, which could hide the visible impact of increases in academic achievement levels of voucher students.

“The program has boosted achievement in public schools, but only by about two [Normal Curve Equivalent] points. So there is a rising tide that is very small,” Wolf noted. The Normal Curve Equivalent is the U.S. Education Department’s statistical means of standardizing test scores. “Increasingly we are finding that the attainment benefits of choice are larger, clearer, and more consistent than the achievement benefits,” he concluded.  

‘No Negative Impact’
Overall, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has been a success for participating children says Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. Forster, who recently updated a review of the empirical research on vouchers, said school choice programs do create a rising tide that benefits all children.

“This is only the latest in a long line of studies examining voucher programs across the country. Studies using the gold standard of research methods, random assignment, consistently find that vouchers deliver a better education to those who use them,” Foster explained. 

“There is also a large body of research, including in Milwaukee, showing that vouchers improve public schools,” he said. “No empirical study has ever found a negative impact on either voucher users or public schools.”
Forster points to earlier research from the School Choice Demonstration Project showing improvements in Milwaukee’s public schools, due in part to competition.

“If it also finds that differences between voucher students and district students are modest in size, this does not mean vouchers have had no impact,” Forster explained. “It means the benefits of vouchers are about evenly distributed between benefits for participants and improvements in public schools due to competition.”

71% of Parents Approve

The School Choice Demonstration Project’s research may provide support for efforts to further expand school choice options for families, which Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker supports. In March, Walker proposed expanding eligibility for Milwaukee’s voucher program.

According to a March 2011 poll commissioned by School Choice Wisconsin, 71 percent of Milwaukee residents with school-age children approve of the voucher program, and a full 53 percent support removing income caps to make the vouchers universally available to families. 

Walker’s 2011-2013 biennial budget would eliminate MPCP’s enrollment cap, phase out the income requirements, and allow Milwaukee County private schools to participate.

Mike Ford, vice president of operations at School Choice Wisconsin, says children in the city would benefit significantly from an expansion of the voucher program. 

“The positive results on attainment show that Milwaukee’s school choice program is an asset to the city of Milwaukee,” Ford said. “This is more evidence we need to strengthen the MPCP by pursuing fairer high school funding, smarter regulation, and academic transparency that truly measures the impact participating schools have on their students.

“Strengthening and expanding the MPCP reform model promises to increase the number of high school graduates in Milwaukee,” Ford added. “It is a reform we cannot afford to limit.”

Lindsey Burke ([email protected])  is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.