Milwaukee Voucher Program Students More Likely to Graduate than Others

Published April 1, 2008

A new report documents a significant difference in graduation rates between low-income Milwaukee children using vouchers and those enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools. Researchers hailed the report as further confirmation that school choice programs improve at-risk students’ chances of getting their high school diplomas.

The study, commissioned by the Milwaukee-based group School Choice Wisconsin and authored by University of Minnesota-Twin Cities sociology professor John Robert Warren, reported private school students’ graduation rates were substantially higher in three out of the four years considered.

The largest gap–14 percent–occurred in 2003. The gap was 9 percent in 2005 and 2006.

Warren said the results for 2004, the only year in which graduation rates for public school students reportedly outpaced those for children attending private schools–and then by only 4 percent–“appear to be anomalously high.” That year, 65 percent of public school students graduated, compared to 61 percent of choice students.

“Students in choice programs are more likely to graduate from high school than students in public high schools,” Warren said.

Room for Improvement

Graduation rates for students in the Milwaukee Public Schools system have improved slowly over the past decade, according to information provided by the school district.

“This provides solid new evidence for our claim that choice actually raises performance in all schools,” said Richard Innes, an education research analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Kentucky. “The fact that the public schools are also improving their graduation rates shows that choice does not destroy the public system, as some opponents claim.”

Still, graduation rates for both private and public schools need to improve, said Mike Ford, a senior research associate at School Choice Wisconsin. The highest graduation rate choice schools managed to achieve during the four years examined by the report was 64 percent, in 2006. Public schools managed to graduate more than 60 percent of students only once.

“Neither group’s graduation rates are as high as they should be,” Ford said.

Significant Achievement

But given that students participating in the city’s voucher program are from low-income homes and often have come from public schools where they were neither the best students nor likely to graduate, the results indicate a significant achievement for the choice program.

“It’s not just about numbers on a page. It’s about poor kids who now have a much brighter future because they were able to attend private schools using school vouchers,” said Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“This story is also about the kids who likely dropped out over the past several years because they didn’t have ready access to private schools,” Coulson said.

Coulson noted the report could provide leverage as choice programs–even demonstrably successful projects such as those in Cleveland and Washington, DC–face persistent, cantankerous critics in the educational establishment, who, along with like-minded lawmakers, continually press to scale back the programs.

“As long as the Milwaukee program is capped at a small percentage of one city’s student population–less than one-fifth, in fact–politicians beholden to teachers unions can safely fight to kill it and not risk being voted out of office by angry constituents,” Coulson said.

Coulson continued, “It is only when school choice programs benefit a larger share of the population that they will be safe from legislators who would rather play politics than help kids get the best education possible.”

Cause and Effect?

Warren, who says he’s a school choice agnostic, reported 1,870 additional Milwaukee public school students–a 14 percent increase–would have graduated during the four-year period studied if the public schools’ graduation rate had equaled that of the school choice program.

The author cautions his research does not conclusively establish school choice as the cause for the graduation rate difference.

“Correlation is not causation,” Warren said. “It’s equally plausible that there’s something different about these kids because their parents are more involved in making these choices.”

Warren said ongoing evaluation of Milwaukee students’ performance by a team of researchers, including University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene, as part of the School Choice Demonstration Project–an objective, long-term evaluation of the effects of school choice–should yield more clues about whether participation in Milwaukee’s choice program is the cause of the better graduation rates.

Past Research

Greene’s prior research has shown differences in reading and mathematics test scores, as well as graduation rates, between students in Milwaukee Public Schools and those enrolled in the city’s private schools.

Coulson said Warren’s findings fit well with the conclusions reached by other researchers and are “part of a much larger pattern.”

For example, Coulson notes, a national study conducted a decade ago by economist Derek Neal “found that urban African-American students were much more likely to complete high school, be accepted to college, and complete college if they attended Catholic schools than if they attended the local public school, even after controlling for differences in students’ socioeconomic status.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“Graduation Rates for Choice and Public School Students in Milwaukee,” by John Robert Warren, Ph.D., University of Minnesota, January 28, 2008:

“Effectiveness of School Choice: The Milwaukee Experiment,” by Jay P. Greene, Paul E. Peterson, and Jiangtao Du, Education and Urban Society, March 1997: (part 1) and (part 2)

“Private School Vouchers and Student Achievement: An Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” by Cecilia Elena Rouse, Quarterly Journal of Economics, March 1997: (executive summary)

“On Graduation Rates: Testimony for the Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education Interim Joint Committee on Education, Kentucky Legislature,” by Richard Innes, Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, November 3, 2003: