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Milwaukee school voucher use increased college enrollment, research shows


John Witte

A school voucher program in Milwaukee increased the chances of students graduating from high school and going on to college, according to La Follette School professor John Witte, a researcher with the School Choice Demonstration Project based at the University of Arkansas.

Witte and other researchers wrapped up five years of evaluations of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program today, February 27, with two panel presentations and discussion of the demonstration project’s findings in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was the first school voucher program of its kind when it started in 1990. In 2006, Wisconsin policymakers mandated a five-year evaluation of the program.

“Our clearest positive finding is that the Choice Program boosts the rates at which students graduate from high school, enroll in a four-year college, and persist in college,” Witte says. ”Since educational attainment is linked to positive life outcomes such as higher lifetime earnings and lower rates of incarceration, these are very encouraging results of the program.”

Witte worked on the evaluations with Patrick Wolf, holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas and director of the School Choice Demonstration Project, and a team of researchers. The evaluations covered academic achievement, parental satisfaction and cost-savings.

“Our final set of reports on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program represent the last word on the first private school choice program targeted to low-income inner-city students in the U.S. — a pioneering program that operated for 22 years and paved the way for 25 voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs that have come in its wake,” Wolf states in the summary of final reports. “Our findings include several ‘no significant difference’ results but also some evidence that participation in MPCP or enrollment in an independent public charter school has produced better student outcomes than those experienced by similar students in Milwaukee Public schools.”

The reports are available online at the School Choice Demonstration Project website.

The evaluation concluded that, when similar students in the voucher program and in Milwaukee Public Schools were compared, the achievement growth of students in the voucher program was higher in reading but similar in math. When a snapshot of students in the voucher program who took the state accountability test was compared to a snapshot of the performance of Milwaukee Public School students with similar income disadvantages, the students in the voucher program performed at higher levels in the upper grades in reading and science but at lower levels in math at all grade levels examined and in reading and science in fourth grade.

The researchers also were able to estimate that 7.5 to 14.6 percent of students in the voucher program have a disability. Even the low end of that range is more than four times higher than the disability rate reported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction based merely on the number of voucher students who received special accommodations while testing.

Voucher students improve on reading, study finds, February 26, 2012, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee School Voucher Program has more Students with Disabilities than Previously Reported, February 27, 2012, Education Next

School choice evaluation results to be released, March 25, 2011, La Follette School News

— posted February 27, 2012