Wis. Choice Evaluator Endorses Vouchers

Published May 1, 2000

A researcher whose credibility has been touted by school choice opponents since the early days of the Milwaukee voucher program has endorsed the use of vouchers not only to provide educational choices to poor families, but also to provide needed financial support to effective private schools. He warned, however, that additional regulations might follow public funds to private schools, together with unionization of private school employees.

“I am in favor of targeted voucher programs,” declared John F. Witte in a March 22 speech in Indianapolis to an audience that included several city school board members. Witte, who is professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was appointed the official evaluator of the original Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1989. He has written about the program, his evaluation, and his own views on school choice in a new book from Princeton University Press, The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America’s First Voucher Program.

“John Witte’s research has been used by opponents to justify their position on vouchers,” said Kevin Teasley, president of the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which sponsored Witte’s visit. The Wisconsin teacher union, for example, relied on Witte’s findings when seeking an injunction to stop the city from expanding the original program. Witte’s work also was used in 1996 to discredit and thwart a choice program that would have allowed students in Washington DC to escape that city’s poorly performing government schools.

Regardless of how his research has been and continues to be used, Witte himself now openly advocates a range of school choice options–vouchers, charter schools, and open enrollment–“to aid families and educators in inner city and poor communities where education has been a struggle for several generations.” Correctly devised, Witte contended, such programs “can provide meaningful educational choices to families that do not have such choices.”

Witte said “it doesn’t make sense” to take targeted vouchers off the table in dealing with “the sticky problems” of public schools in large cities, but he argued against universal vouchers for a number of reasons: they would subsidize middle-class families who already had choice, and the influx of public funds into private schools could lead to further regulation of private schools and the unionization of private school employees.

Putting a positive perspective on the current battle over vouchers, Witte reminded the audience there had been a similar battle with the education establishment during the late 1980s over other school choice options–open enrollment, magnet schools, and interdistrict transfers–that now are widely accepted. Over the past dozen years, he said, there has been “an enormous movement towards freeing up the choices available to parents,” the result being much more public school choice.

Milwaukee Voucher Positives

The Milwaukee voucher program was designed specifically to help poor families who couldn’t find the money to send their children to private schools. According to Witte’s analysis, the families who used the vouchers had incomes around $12,000 a year and were very dissatisfied with the public schools. The parents in these families–typically a single mother–were better educated than their peers, placed a high value on education, had a high level of parental involvement, and had a child who was not doing well in school.

“I don’t blame them for exiting,” said Witte, noting that parental satisfaction “increased dramatically” when voucher students transferred to private schools. While parents were most dissatisfied with discipline and the general quality of education in the public schools, these were the two areas parents were most satisfied with in private schools. Parental involvement also was higher in the private schools.

Another benefit of the voucher program singled out as “very important” by Witte was a dramatic improvement in some of the private schools. Two schools in particular were about to go bankrupt when the voucher program was implemented. As a result of the influx of students and funds, the schools were able not only to continue operating, but also to improve the quality of their educational services by upgrading their physical plant, hiring more certified teachers, and reducing turnover among existing teachers. One of the schools expanded from fewer than 150 students to more than 400, with another 350 students on the waiting list.

Milwaukee Voucher Negatives

Witte identified three “negatives” from his analysis of the original Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The first of these was a 30 percent attrition rate for voucher students “who left the program before they had to and went to other schools.” However, Witte admitted this was “not so much of a negative,” since the attrition rate was very similar to the student mobility rate in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Witte cited the lack of achievement score gains as the voucher program’s second negative, but he prefaced this by saying, “I don’t interpret this negatively.” In fact, he said, choice students “held their own with the public schools and the national norms.”

Finally, Witte noted that four private schools went bankrupt, with larceny a factor at one of the four. However, Witte again seemed to qualify his concern, pointing out that there is a great deal of variation in the quality of public schools in the city, with bad public schools tending to mask the better ones. Private schools in the city exhibit similar variation, he said, with the bad ones attracting more attention than those that are excellent.

In response to a question from the audience, Witte said he didn’t think vouchers would result in the creation of new private schools in the city because most of the private schools were religious and it was their religious mission that had helped keep them open. He did suggest vouchers would bring about improvements in urban education by helping to keep effective private schools open.