Report: Milwaukee Voucher Program Serving Students, Taxpayers Well

Published June 1, 2009

A new study shows children receiving vouchers from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—the nation’s oldest voucher program—are getting at least as good an education as their peers in public schools, at half the cost.

“The Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” released by the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project on March 24, shows voucher students in Milwaukee are getting an education at least on par with children in Milwaukee’s public schools.

The multiyear study began in 2007. School Choice Demonstration Project Director and lead author Patrick J. Wolf notes the study’s accuracy and said his estimates of how much money the program saves taxpayers are most likely on the low side.

“We were able to examine historical enrollment patterns and the actual formulas that determine school funding in Milwaukee to get a very accurate read on the impact of the MPCP on Wisconsin taxpayers,” Wolf said.

“On the whole,” Wolf continued, “taxpayers save money because the maximum voucher amount is substantially lower than the state and local per-pupil allocation to students in public school. Federal spending on the students was not factored into the analysis, so the conclusions regarding the positive fiscal impact of the voucher program are, if anything, conservative.”

Road Blocks

Evelyn Stacey, an education researcher at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, believes the report adds credence to voucher supporters’ claims that the public education system is poorly serving taxpayers.

“Since states are trying to focus on improving student achievement with less money to spend, this report is a strong step forward for arguments in support of vouchers to continue and to be considered for more and more states,” Stacey said. “Wisconsin has saved $25 million dollars in 2006-07 with the choice program. That is a considerable amount of money.”

Adam Schaeffer, an education policy analyst at the Washington, DC-based Cato Institute, said one of the reasons the American education system has not fully embraced vouchers, despite reports proving their worth, is teacher union opposition and the bureaucratic nature of the public school system.

Outperforming Peers

Michael Ford, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group that keeps close tabs on research and legislation regarding MPCP, stresses the study highlights how students in the voucher program are outperforming their peers in the public school system.

“The study showed MPCP students had statically significant gains compared to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students in 7th and 8th grade math,” Ford noted. “While globally you could not say in Year Two of the study that all MPCP students had pulled ahead of comparable MPS students, they certainly did in the sub-categories. Indeed, in almost every sub-category MPCP students performed higher, just not at statistically significant levels, and in no category did MPCP students trail MPS students at statistically significant levels.”

Ford is also happy the report indicates the voucher program has helped improve performance in the public school system.

“The study found that the MPCP has produced academic gains for MPS students,” Ford said. “The gains were statistically significant across multiple models. In effect, this means that the MPCP has raised the achievement bar across the board. The program is adding measurable academic value to choosers and non-choosers, and all this is confirmed in the Year Two reports. If the trends evident in Year Two continue, the gains will become larger and statistically significant across the board.”

Taxpayer Savings

Schaeffer sees the report as part of a trend in which scientific evidence is piling up to prove what voucher supporters have been saying for years.

“Supporters of school choice are migrating to the fiscal argument for obvious reasons. With the deepening recession and increasing concern about cost, those who have spent a lot of time educating the public about how voucher programs improve school performance, lead to greater social equality, and help students, are now realizing they have not spent a lot of time informing the public of how much the public school system costs and how much the public saves with the voucher system,” Schaeffer explained. “Florida, too, had a recent analysis on its voucher program, and people turned to the parts of that analysis showing how much money the state saved with vouchers.

“There is so much concern about budget shortfalls, but instead of raising taxes, why not save money with vouchers that deliver?” Schaeffer  noted.

Stacey thinks the School Choice Demonstration Project’s report also illuminates another positive aspect of vouchers.

“Vouchers not only save the state money [and] give students quality education, but [they] help private schools stay open,” Stacey said, “ultimately keeping as many choice options as possible available to all families.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information …

“The Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Summary of Baseline Reports,” by Patrick J. Wolf, School Choice Demonstration Project, University of Arkansas, February 2008:; March 2009 edition: