Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Milwaukee voucher study

A study released a couple of months ago of the nation's oldest voucher program in Milwaukee found that "students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program scored at similar levels as their peers not participating in the school choice program."


Ongoing Evaluation of Milwaukee Choice Program Finds Students Achieving on Same Level as Peers

University of Arkansas-led team heads largest study to date


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas researchers presented information today, April 7, in Madison, Wisc., from a study that found students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program scored at similar levels as their peers not participating in the school choice program. The comparison was made two years after large panels of students in the program and students in the Milwaukee public school system had been carefully matched to each other.

   The evaluation project represents the most comprehensive evaluation of school choice in a single place ever attempted, said Patrick J. Wolf, University of Arkansas professor of education reform and holder of an endowed chair in school choice. Wolf leads the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research organization based at the University of Arkansas that is conducting the evaluation.

   "We still have two more years of data to collect for this longitudinal study," Wolf said, "but at this point the voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers."

   The evaluation also found that, while students in the choice program perform at levels roughly comparable to similarly income-disadvantaged students in the Milwaukee public school system, they perform better than low-income students in other U.S. urban areas. Families in the choice program reported that their child's commitment to education and study habits are more important harbingers of academic success to them than are test scores.

   Dozens of private schools have left the school choice program over the past few years, either because they violated state regulations or failed to attract enough students. The research team concluded that the private schools driven from the program had much lower student test scores than the schools still participating in the choice program.

   The research team also looked at the effect of the school choice program on racial segregation in the city's public and private schools. They found that school choice in Milwaukee has neither worsened nor improved the levels of racial segregation.

   Once completed in 2012, the results of the longitudinal Milwaukee voucher research project are expected to answer many questions about the effect voucher systems can have on improving academic achievement and other important student and family outcomes. The data are expected to assist education officials and policymakers around the country as they consider implementing voucher programs.

   The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was the first urban school voucher program of its kind when it started in 1990. In 2008-09, the year studied in this round of reports, the program enrolled19,803 students in 127 private schools through the use of vouchers.

   Researchers with the University of Arkansas; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Westat, a contract research organization based in Rockville, Md.; the University of Kentucky; Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.; Furman University in Greenville, S.C.; Young Harris (Ga.) College; Qwaku & Associates; and the Manhattan Institute make up Wolf's team. Several members presented the reports today to an audience of policymakers, academics and other education stakeholders at a forum at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The reports are available online at

   The research team is looking at the effects of the voucher program on such outcomes as student achievement, parent and student satisfaction, civic values and how parents and students experience the program. The five-year evaluation also will determine the systemic effects of the choice program on education finance, public schools, non-participating students, private school capacity and school-level racial integration.

   The next set of reports will include an assessment of the effects of the Milwaukee choice program on high school graduation rates.


CONTACTS: Patrick J. Wolf, professor and Twenty-First Century Chair in School ChoiceCollege of Education and Health Professions479-445-9821,


Heidi Stambuck, director of communications, College of Education and Health Professions, 479-575-3138,


Ravitch is of course trumpeting this study (, but I promise you she'll remain silent about the Florida study.


I'm disappointed and puzzled by these results, but regardless, I reject Ravitch's conclusion that this study shows that the Milwaukee voucher program has been a failure.  It's wildly popular with parents and has numerous other benefits, as this February WSJ editorial points out (

A report released last week by School Choice Wisconsin, an advocacy group, finds that between 2003 and 2008 students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program had a significantly higher graduation rate than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

"Had MPS graduation rates equalled those for MPCP students in the classes of 2003 through 2008, the number of MPS graduates would have been about 18 percent higher," writes John Robert Warren of the University of Minnesota. "That higher rate would have resulted in 3,352 more MPS graduates during the 2003-2008 years."

In 2008 the graduation rate for voucher students was 77% versus 65% for the nonvoucher students, though the latter receives $14,000 per pupil in taxpayer support, or more than double the $6,400 per pupil that voucher students receive in public funding.

The Milwaukee voucher program serves more than 21,000 children in 111 private schools, so nearly 20% more graduates mean a lot fewer kids destined for failure without the credential of a high school diploma. The finding is all the more significant because students who receive vouchers must, by law, come from low-income families, while their counterparts in public schools come from a broader range of economic backgrounds.

To summarize: the program costs far less money per student, parents and students love it, the high school graduation rate is much higher, and student test scores (the importance of which Ravitch likes to dismiss when it suits her argument) are comparable – sounds to me like something that should be expanded!

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