Research & Commentary: Existing Accountability Laws for Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program Working as Designed

Published August 23, 2017

A report released in August 2017 by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WiLL) and School Choice Wisconsin (SCW) examines accountability provisions affecting the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). It found these provisions are doing what they were designed to do: “[culling] poor-performing and unsafe schools from the program and [allowing] high-quality schools to grow.”

MPCP, established in 1990, is the nation’s oldest school voucher program. Starting with less than 500 students in only seven schools in 1990, the program now services over 28,000 students in 121 different schools. Altogether, almost one-quarter of all Milwaukee students participate in MPCP, with 68 percent of all Milwaukee families with children eligible for the program under its current income requirements.

Private schools participating in MPCP are subject to numerous accountability laws, the authors of the WiLL/SCW report note, “especially regarding fiscal, auditing, and accreditation matters.” According to EdChoice, these regulations are “somewhat extensive.” If an MPCP school fails to meet these measures, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has the authority to deny a school entry into MPCP, withhold payment from a school, or remove a school from the program. Since 2003–04, 57 schools have been removed from MPCP, while another 33 schools have been denied entry to the program since 2007–08. Payments have been withheld from schools 375 times since 2005–06.

“Data show that schools that close are more prone to be academically deficient, experience more 911 calls and do not have strongly established religious affiliations,” the study states. “Schools that are insufficient in these areas are more likely to leave the program, either through legal removal or parental accountability. Most of the closed schools also experienced high levels of enrollment volatility and were generally in operation for shorter amounts of time.”

“Accountability measures irrefutably exist for the MPCP, and they may work to close down some poor-performing private schools,” the study concludes. “Both legal and parental forces are drivers in the marketplace as they are intended to be. Even with stricter regulations and more data being made available to parents, the program has grown both in terms of participating schools and students, which clearly demonstrates strong demand for the program. School closure is not intrinsically bad; it successfully removes lesser quality choice schools and de facto increases the market share of successful choice schools.”

Only 18 percent of Milwaukee 4th graders and 11 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Only 15 percent of 4th graders and 13 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading. These results show Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is failing to educate roughly 85 percent of its 4th grade and 8th grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics. It is for this reason MPCP is such a valuable program, because too many public schools in Milwaukee are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives.

The WiLL/SCW study reinforces what we already know: For over a quarter of a century, MPCP has been one of the school choice movement’s great success stories. However, there are still ways to improve the program. Eligibility to MPCP should be made universal, so that every child in Milwaukee has access to the program, and program funding should be increased to bring the voucher awards closer to what MPS spends per-pupil in its schools.

MPCP gives more Milwaukee families a greater opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. When parents are given the opportunity to choose, every school must compete and improve, which allows more children to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide additional information about school vouchers and education choice programs.

Accountability in Action 2017: The Impact of Fiscal Accountability and Parental Choice on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
This paper from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty found accountability provisions for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are working as intended, helping to remove low-performing and unsafe schools from the program and allowing high-quality schools to grow.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details the vast body of research on educational choice programs, determining school choice improves academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal educational savings account (ESA) programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

Making Sense of New Evidence on Private School Vouchers
This Urban Institute panel examines the latest results from the Louisiana Scholarship Program and what those results mean for the future of private school vouchers across the country. Panelists include Matthew Chingos, director of the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute; Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans; John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education; Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas; and Beth Blaufuss, president of Archbishop Carroll High School in New Orleans.

How Has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Students? A Comprehensive Summary of Effects after Three Years
This Policy Brief from the School Choice Demonstration at the University of Arkansas summarizes the findings of three of its prior technical reports on the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

Supplying Choice: An Analysis of School Participation Decisions in Voucher Programs in DC, Indiana, and Louisiana
This paper from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas examines the impacts of private school regulations on the supply side of voucher programs. The researchers found independent private schools that are forced to endure substantial regulations from the state are likely to be financially distressed and more willing to change their educational model. The paper also found states with higher regulatory burdens are less likely to have schools participating in voucher programs than states with lower regulatory burdens.

2016/17 School Choice Report Card
This report card published by the American Federation for Children scores 27 active non-special-needs voucher, scholarship tax-credit, and education savings account programs against ideal standards for program quality. The report is an excellent tool policymakers and researchers can use to help improve education programs and maximize student participation. 

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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