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(Guest post by Anna Jacob)

Does expanded parental school choice improve outcomes for students, parents, schools, and communities?  That question is central to current debates about education reform.

On Feb 27, 2012, the School Choice Demonstration Project, an independent education research center based within the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, released its fifth and final set of reports in a comprehensive, longitudinal evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Established in 1990, the MPCP, or “Choice Program” as many refer to it, is the oldest and largest urban school choice program in the United States, providing government scholarships to Milwaukee families wishing to enroll their children in private schools. In its first year of operation, the MPCP enrolled 341 students in seven secular private participating schools. The program has grown substantially since then. In the current school year 23,198 students are using a voucher worth up to $6,442 to enroll in one of the 106 private participating secular and religious schools.

In 2006 Wisconsin policymakers identified the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), led by Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, as the independent research organization to help evaluate the impacts of school choice in Milwaukee.  The SCDP has now released thirty-one topical reports and five summary reports examining a comprehensive range of program impacts.

The major findings of the most recent set of reports are:

  • The MPCP continues to expand while excluding underperforming schools.
  • Enrolling in a private high school through the MPCP increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college and persisting in college.
  • A consistent sample of MPCP students, tracked for five years, scored higher in reading but similar in math to a comparable group of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students. A high-stakes testing policy added to the MPCP in the final year of the evaluation may have been largely responsible for the boost in reading achievement.
  • A descriptive snapshot study comparing 2010-11 test score data for all MPCP and similar, low-income MPS students reveals that MPCP students, on average, have higher test scores in reading and science in grades 8 and 10 but lower test scores in math and in 4th grade.
  • Between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of MPCP students have a disability, compared to 19 percent in Milwaukee Public Schools. These MPCP figures are much higher and likely more reliable than the 1.6 percent previously reported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for MPCP students.
  • Site visits in the spring and fall of 2011 to 13 MPCP schools revealed that many Choice students come to the private schools 1-2 years behind academically.
  • The achievement growth of charter school students is similar to MPS students in both reading and math, although the particular subgroup of conversion charters (schools that used to be private schools) demonstrates higher achievement growth than MPS

The school choice movement gathered phenomenal momentum in 2011, a year that saw school choice legislation introduced, passed or signed into law in 41 states. In all, seven new school choice programs were enacted and 11 programs were expanded. The MPCP is the forefather of these programs and the non-partisan evaluation of its impacts offers important insight for policymakers in all states.

Note: Figure comes from ‘School Choice Now: The Year of School Choice. School Choice Yearbook 2011-12’

Readers seeking extensive details regarding study design, sampling procedures and statistical methods used in the SCDP evaluation of the MPCP can download the full set of reports at http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP/Milwaukee_Research.html.

Anna M. Jacob, M.Ed., is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy and Doctoral Academy Fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. She works as a Graduate Assistant with the School Choice Demonstration Project. She received her B.Ed. from St Patrick’s College Dublin,where she graduated with first- class honours, and her M.Ed. through the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program.