Milwaukee Voucher Program Continues to Expand

Published May 1, 2003

A recent study from the Public Policy Forum reports the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) continues to grow, with 2002-2003 enrollment increasing 7 percent to 11,163 participants in 107 private schools.

The 13-year-old program provides publicly funded scholarships for low-income students to attend private secular and religious schools, a policy upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in last year’s Zelman decision.

“What began as a bold, though small, experiment in market-based education reform has grown to be one of the largest educational programs in the state of Wisconsin,” report the Forum’s researchers in a January 24 Research Brief, “Beyond an Experiment.”

Positive Trends

Seven new schools joined the voucher program during the past year, but the total number of participating schools remained unchanged since another seven left. The number of non-sectarian schools in the program increased from 30 to 35, now representing 32 percent of the total. Non-religious schools enroll 32 percent of MPCP students, with Catholic schools enrolling 40 percent and Lutheran schools enrolling 10 percent.

MPCP Full-Time Enrollment and Number of Participating Schools

Since 1998-1999, a total of 70 new private schools have entered the MPCP program. The study reports that while most participating schools have seen fluctuating enrollments, 26 of the 70 schools have seen steady increases in each of the past four years.

Although overall MPCP enrollment has been increasing, the mobility rate out of the program has been roughly 26 percent for the past four years, indicating MPCP schools must continue to work at meeting the needs of parents and students. Nine schools that once participated in the MPCP program are no longer operating.

“MPCP schools must continue to attract new participants to the program in order to maintain enrollment,” the study concludes.

Competing for Students, Teachers

The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have responded to this more competitive environment by marketing themselves to the public. MPS schools have seen their enrollment rise by 4.7 percent between 1990 and 2001. Jay P. Greene at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research reports MPS has advertised it will provide individual tutoring to any student not reading at grade level by grade three.

The Public Policy Forum’s senior researcher, Anneliese Dickman, told School Reform News schools are competing not only for students but also for teachers. One private Montessori school closed not because it lacked voucher students, but because MPS had opened a public Montessori school and the private school was not able to attract enough teachers–at a lower rate of pay–to stay in operation.

Six schools enrolling almost 700 MPCP students left the program by converting to charter schools. Charter schools are funded at $6,900 per pupil, while MPCP schools receive $5,783 per pupil. The study notes, “Without any change in enrollment, a school would expect to see a 21 percent increase in revenue after leaving the MPCP program to become a charter school.” If the funding advantage were reversed, it is likely charter-to-private-school conversions would occur.

As a result of the voucher program, nearly half of private school students (47 percent) are now minorities, up significantly from 1995, when the figure was less than 30 percent. The mostly minority make-up of the MPS student population is now beginning to be reflected in the MPCP private schools.

Fifty-eight of 101 MPCP schools that provided race and ethnicity data reported student bodies of 90 percent or more minorities. Similarly, 83 of 168 MPS schools have the same minority composition. The rise in minority student enrollment in private schools is further evidence minority parents desire to enroll their children in private schools but cannot do so unless they have the financial assistance provided by the MPCP.

“[F]or the most part, the racial makeup of a MPCP school is a reflection of the population of the school’s neighborhood,” notes the study, pointing out that just five of the 101 MPCP schools enroll 90 percent or more white students.

Significantly, many of the schools enrolling high percentages of minority students are newer schools. Out of 32 MPCP schools that are five years old or less, 23 enrolled 90 percent or more minority students this year.

“The choice program thus appears to have had a hand in creating new schools to serve urban, minority populations,” the study concludes.

Marya DeGrow is the research assistant to the Independent Institute’s Education Policy Center in Golden, Colorado. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The January 24, 2003 Research Brief from the Public Policy Forum, “Beyond an Experiment: 13 Years of Growth in School Choice Program,” is available at the Forum’s Web site at

The 10-page report is also available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12070.