Voucher Competition Begins to Make Inroads in Milwaukee

Published September 1, 2008

Although vouchers are supposed to prompt improvements in the public schools through competition for students, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have shown little improvement in graduation rates or test scores — despite the migration of more than 19,000 students to voucher schools over the past 18 years.

This lack of improvement prompted influential school choice advocate Sol Stern to argue in City Journal earlier this year that school choice isn’t enough and other reform strategies, such as instructional reform, are needed.

However, a new study from The Heartland Institute shows Milwaukee’s public schools have actually experienced very little competition for students since vouchers were introduced. That’s because total public school enrollment grew rapidly and then remained relatively flat until recently. It is only in the past four years that MPS has experienced a significant loss of students to voucher schools and seen the size of its student body fall below the level it was at when the voucher program started in 1990.

Turning Tide

This swamping of voucher competition by increased public school enrollment was noted in both Milwaukee and Cleveland as early as 2001 by American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick M. Hess, who commented at the time, “Competition in most urban districts is like a gnat to a bull, there but barely noticed.”

The competitive situation has changed dramatically in the past four years, according to the new Heartland study, “School Vouchers: Why Aren’t They Reforming Public Schools?” Overall K-12 enrollment in Milwaukee is now falling, and while voucher schools have continued to expand, MPS enrollment has dropped by almost 10,000 students since the 2003-04 school year, with students migrating not only to voucher schools but also to independent charter schools.

Increasing Competition

Although this increased competition for students will prompt some improvements in the public schools, Milwaukee’s voucher program and most others will not produce real reform in the public education system because they are a far cry from the universal program envisioned by the late Milton Friedman.

Friedman believed vouchers should be worth enough to buy a good private education would be available to all students. He said voucher programs should not impose excessive regulation, and they should allow parents to add to the value of the voucher.

The Heartland study finds most of today’s voucher programs are simply “rescue” efforts that provide an escape route for low-income children in failing schools. Such programs, which Friedman characterized as “charity” vouchers, are not capable of reforming the public school system.

A review of the effects of various voucher programs suggests four conditions are needed for voucher competition to be effective:

  • competition must be explicit;
  • the voucher value must be substantial;
  • financial consequences should accompany loss of students; and
  • public school enrollment should decrease when voucher students leave.

Making an Impact

Vouchers have affected MPS enrollment significantly only in the past four years. During the first eight years of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), MPS enrollment grew by almost 9,000 students, to a peak of 107,043 in 1997-98, while voucher students totaled only 1,545 students at that time.

Even in the six years following the 1998 court approval of MPCP, when voucher program enrollment soared to 13,268 by 2003-04, MPS enrollment remained relatively stable, falling initially and then plateauing at about 103,500. With 3,405 students in independent charter schools, public school enrollment in 2003-04 totaled 107,174–virtually the same as MPS’s peak enrollment in 1997-98.

While MPCP and independent charter schools continued to increase enrollment over the past four years, MPS lost almost 10,000 students, dropping to 93,972 students in 2007-08, almost 4,400 fewer than the district had when the voucher program started 18 years earlier.

MPCP has consistently attracted an average of 1,500 additional students every year since 1998-99. Publicly funded K-12 enrollment increased by almost 20,000 students since 1990-91, and MPCP absorbed most of this increase in students.

Instead of turning solely to another reform strategy, such as instructional reform, the Heartland study recommends Milwaukee’s school choice leaders recognize the limitations of charity vouchers and reconsider their opposition to universal vouchers.

George Clowes ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

“School Vouchers: Why Aren’t They Reforming Public Schools?” by George Clowes, The Heartland Institute, May 2008: http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=23540

“School Choice Isn’t Enough: Instructional Reform Is the Key to Better Schools,” by Sol Stern, City Journal, Winter 2008: http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_1_instructional_reform.html