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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.

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Three weeks ago, Wisconsin Representative Bob Turner (D-Racine) submitted a Letter to the Editor describing his opposition to expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).  To someone unfamiliar with school choice, this letter could be confusing or, even worse, misleading.  He does note that “parental involvement is the key to our students’ educational achievement,” a statement with which few would argue.  Curiously, he opposes vouchers, even though a district’s participation in a voucher program would necessarily increase parental involvement. Turner argues against the MPCP because “the standards for participating voucher schools are minimal. They may employ teachers with no training and only a GED, and administrators without a high school or college degree.” If the schools are so bad – filled with incompetent and unqualified teachers and administrators – no parents with the ability to choose their children’s schools, as vouchers would give them, would send their children there, so what’s to fear?    Opposition to the voucher program on these grounds reflects a complete lack of confidence in parents’ ability to make the right choice on behalf of their children.  No one has a greater interest in holding schools accountable than parents.   Rep. Turner claims that parental involvement is the key to success, yet he doesn’t want them to have the opportunity to decide where their children go to school.

In explaining another reason for his opposition, Turner claims, “The current pending state budget bill, 2011-13 Senate Bill 27, will expand the Milwaukee parental choice program to all school districts in Milwaukee County.  This will have the effect of more affluent families taking advantage of this program so that their children can attend a school that hand picks the best students possible and limits, or does not accept, any special needs students.”  (Emphasis is my own.)  This statement is particularly troubling, as it 1) inaccurately characterizes access to vouchers and 2) misleads people into thinking that the wealthy and not the intended beneficiaries of vouchers, namely poor families, will benefit most.  In actuality, for families to take advantage of the program, they have to qualify for a voucher; to qualify for a voucher, a family must fall below a certain income level.  Even with the income eligibility raised to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (~ $68,000 for a family of four), affluent families – ones who by definition have an abundance of money, goods, property, etc. – will simply not qualify.  A family income of $68,000 a year is nothing to scoff at, but it should not be confused with affluence.  Many more families than before will directly benefit from the expansion of the voucher program…just not affluent ones.

He also calls into question the success of voucher programs, boldly claiming that “the results of the testing [Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination] showed that voucher students scored the same or worse as students attending a Milwaukee public school.”  With no reference to where he obtained this information, one has reason to be skeptical.  (Side note: critiquing the efficacy of a voucher program simply by comparing all voucher students to students attending a Milwaukee public school is misguided and does not account for other factors at play.  Students who take advantage of vouchers are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and therefore they would be expected to initially score at lower levels than public school students – a group that would include both disadvantaged students and ones who come from families of greater means.)  As it turns out, research conducted by John Witte and Patrick Wolfe demonstrates that – after looking at carefully matched sets of students in the choice program and in Milwaukee public schools – the MPCP has been successful.  Among the findings were the following:

  1. Competitive pressure from the voucher program has produced modest achievement gains in MPS
  2. The three-year achievement gains of choice students have been comparable to those of our matched sample of MPS students
  3. High school students in the choice program both graduate and enroll in four-year colleges at a higher rate than do similar students in MPS

The claims that voucher programs are not producing academic benefits are simply not accurate.

Lastly, Rep. Turner writes, “With the Racine Unified School District receiving the second largest projected budget cut in the state, over $11 million in school aid and over $40 million in revenue reduction, we cannot allow additional voucher schools to be started in Racine.”  He makes the not-so-subtle suggestion (given his intentional bolding of the figures) that the voucher program will cost the state money at a time when money is already hard to come by.  As it turns out, the Milwaukee Choice Program saved the state of Wisconsin an estimated $52 million in Fiscal Year 2001.  If anything, given the financial benefits Wisconsin could receive, the numbers Turner provides offer economic justification to an issue where the moral justification (giving disadvantaged children increased access to more schools) already suffices.