The Impact of Voucher Schools

How school choice has — and hasn’t — worked. Second in a series on education in Milwaukee.

Twenty years ago, Milwaukee grabbed the attention of the nation by instituting the most significant departure from traditional public education in generations: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more commonly known as “choice,” or “voucher schools.”

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Voucher schools serve 16 percent of the city’s student population and represent an annual expenditure of $150 million in tax dollars per year. So the most important question for policymakers, citizens, and, ultimately, parents, is this: has it worked? Has the investment paid off?

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Taken as a whole, the voucher schools on average have similar test score results to Milwaukee Public Schools. Roughly the same percentage of voucher-receiving students were achieving at proficiency or better than all students in MPS in 2010-2011, but the following year, voucher students had somewhat lower test scores in reading and significantly lower scores in math.

Taken school by school, the distribution of quality schools in the voucher system and MPS is similar. Roughly the same percentage of voucher and MPS schools score higher than state averages in reading, and roughly the same percentage are very low performing. There is evidence that tighter accountability standards, including requiring that schools receiving vouchers be accredited and take state standardized tests, has led to better results and fewer bad schools being allowed to participate.

So is the program a net win or loss for the city? Clearly Milwaukee needs more high quality schools, and the voucher program has unquestionably added quality schools to the menu of options open to parents. But the program has also given rise to schools no better than, and in some cases worse, than the public school options nearby.

And while the $6,442 voucher is much lower than the per-pupil expenditures for MPS, a quirk in how the State accounts for private school students, widely known as the “funding flaw,” means city residents arguably pay more than we should per voucher student, while non-Milwaukee residents benefit.

Milwaukee’s grand experiment put power directly into the hands of low-income parents in the form of a voucher. But after 20 years we now know that this power alone is not enough to create excellent schools. The excellent schools that exist in each sector show that it takes a community committed to excellence to make it happen: educators, parents, volunteer board members and others, all committed to a common vision and doing whatever it takes, and held accountable for meaningful results beyond a test score.