Vouchers Dramatically Improve Milwaukee Public Schools

Published March 1, 2002

As Milwaukee families were given new access to vouchers and other education options in the late 1990s, students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) were not “left behind,” as voucher opponents predicted.

According to a new study by the Milwaukee-based American Education Reform Council, those students were in fact lifted up by the positive response of public schools to the injection of competition into the education marketplace. The schools’ response included reforms that have proven virtually impossible to implement in most other urban school districts, such as funding schools according to student enrollment and assigning teachers according to criteria other than seniority.

“The evidence is increasingly clear that MPS students have made significant academic gains between 1997 and 2001, the period of the most rapid expansion of school choice,” wrote elected MPS school board member John Gardner in the January 2002 report, Milwaukee’s Public Schools: The Untold Story of America’s Newest Democratic Revolution.

Acknowledging the Competition

Two longtime critics of school choice conceded MPS has responded positively to the new education options available to parents. Rethinking Schools editor Bob Peterson, an MPS teacher, told Wisconsin Public Radio he believed choice had been a factor in encouraging positive change at MPS.

“I really hate to say this because I’m not a choice supporter, but I do think that the threat of choice did force the public school system to make … changes,” Wisconsin State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A former MPS board member, Sinicki said: “If John Gardner believes the school district has improved, the public can believe it.”

Gardner, a left-wing labor organizer, is the most senior member of the MPS board, first elected in 1995 with 52 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 1999 with 60 percent of the citywide vote, and with the largest victory margin ever recorded in a citywide MPS election.

“Milwaukee’s democratic revolution in redefining American public education has strengthened all educational sectors, including Milwaukee Public Schools, surrounding districts, all denominations of religious schools, and all varieties of independent schools,”Gardner concludes.

Predictions Wrong

A positive outcome is not what school choice opponents predicted would result if parents were given tax-funded vouchers in the nation’s twelfth largest public school system. Voucher foes warned of devastating educational and financial consequences: declines in enrollment, less state education money coming to MPS because of vouchers “siphoning off” tax dollars, budget restrictions, and lower academic performance for MPS students “left behind” in the wake of the voucher program.

By raising fears of such destructive potential, opponents convinced many school vouchers should never be unleashed at all, or at most should be studied only in small experiments under tightly controlled conditions. However, after years of legal wrangling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided in favor of the program on June 10, 1998. The full force of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was unleashed on the city’s public schools.

According to Gardner’s report, which examines both recent and longer-term effects of the program, none of the predictions made by voucher opponents has come true.

Gardner reports that the percentage of students scoring proficient on state tests increased in all 15 categories between 1998 and 2001, the period when tax-supported school choice options were expanding most rapidly for families in Milwaukee. In addition, MPS students improved their performance on 11 of 15 standardized tests where their achievement was compared to a national sample. Significantly, these gains came even as the number of MPS students from minority and low-income backgrounds increased.

Examining the effect of the voucher program since its inception, Gardner provides other evidence contradicting the assertion that school choice would hurt public schools. In fact, 11 years of data show just the opposite:

  • MPS enrollment is up by 4,576 students since 1990.
  • MPS now educates an increased proportion of K-12 students in Milwaukee, with current market share at 80 percent compared to 78 percent in 1990.
  • Real spending per pupil is up 24 percent.
  • State support for MPS is up 61 percent, even after adjusting for inflation.
  • The state now provides 67 percent of MPS spending, compared to 54 percent in 1990.

Systemic Change

The expansion of choice has brought systemic changes to MPS that have proven virtually impossible to implement in other major urban districts, notes Gardner. For example:

  • Since dollars follow students, schools must actively recruit them, making the schools more responsive to local communities, more communicative with parents, and more attentive to students.
  • Individual schools now control over 95 percent of the district’s operating budget, with many spending decisions made by principals.
  • Teachers are no longer assigned by seniority, but are hired by school selection committees.
  • A new program enables substandard teachers to be retrained or terminated.
  • Under a similar program, ineffective principals are demoted or persuaded to resign.

“None of these improvements would have occurred without the impact of expanded parental options that transformed public education to a multi-sector delivery system,” writes Gardner. The increased choice options and the positive results have led to “a dramatic change in how citizens view public education.”

“Milwaukee has redefined the concept [of public education],” Gardner concludes, “and has shown that competitive, multi-sector delivery strengthens, rather than threatens, public education, the Milwaukee Public Schools, and democratic civic culture.”

Changing the Debate

Despite the improvements, Gardner cautions much more progress is needed. MPS remains a district where overall academic achievement is “unacceptably low” and the high school graduation rate is among the nation’s lowest, particularly among African-American and Hispanic students.

It is time, he argues, to move beyond debates about which schools should be included in the traditional definition of American public education. The most important division among schools is simply whether they are good or bad.

“We instead should attend to the more pressing task of ensuring effective instruction and necessary enculturation for the poor urban children who remain tragically tracked for failure within obsolete, failed government monopolies that are as outmoded as they are unjust,” Gardner declares.

The more urgent challenge, he argues, is addressing “the persistent inequalities that mean most poor children, in most American cities, will never learn to read, write, or calculate well enough to function as citizens, workers, or parents.”

For more information …

John Gardner’s report, Milwaukee’s Public Schools: The Untold Story of America’s Newest Democratic Revolution, is available from the Web site of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at www.schoolchoiceinfo.org/hot_topics/pdf/83.pdf.

The SchoolChoiceInfo.org Web site offers a Media Kit about the Cleveland voucher case, prepared by the Institute for Justice, Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and Institute for the Transformation of Learning. It addresses key issues at stake in the case, pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as facts about the programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida. The Kit is available at www.schoolchoiceinfo.org/supremecourt.

Caroline M. Hoxby’s paper, “School Choice and School Productivity (or Could School Choice be a Tide that Lifts All Boats?),” is available in an abridged version at www.educationnext.org/20014/68.html. An unabridged version also is available, at www.educationnext.org/unabridged/20014/hoxby.pdf.

The 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Jackson v. Benson is available at www.courts.state.wi.us/html/sc/97/97-0270.htm.

The Democratic Leadership Council’s views on education reform are available at www.ndol.org/ndol_ka.cfm?kaid=110.