The researchers behind the School Choice Demonstration Project have given us their last word on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and the news largely is good for the nation’s oldest school voucher enterprise. A sample of voucher students made larger reading gains than their counterparts in Milwaukee Public Schools and voucher students continue to show higher graduation rates. But more significant may be the implication that higher standards and accountability are partly responsible for the progress.
By the time the project gathered data during its final year of study, the schools participating in the voucher program were required to abide by a number of new regulations. Besides requirements to adopt curriculum, instructional, and graduation standards, the participating private schools had to test their voucher students with the same assessments used in public schools, and each school had to report the results. At a minimum, these new regulations “played a role” in generating the achievement gains found in the final year of the study, said Patrick J. Wolf, the project’s principal investigator and professor at the University of Arkansas.
The results show a need to further explore the right balance between parental choice and state standards.
“We cannot determine conclusively how big a role the accountability policy played, however, only that the combination of Choice and accountability left the MPCP students in our study with significantly higher levels of reading gains than their carefully matched peers in MPS after four years,” Wolf said.
Whatever the effect, the results show a need to further explore the right balance between parental choice and state standards, even if that discussion leaves many voucher proponents with a bad case of heartburn. After 21 years, taxpayers want to know what they have gotten for their money in Milwaukee. The political process that has enhanced the voucher program in good times and bad may be showing that Wisconsin is, after all, on to something.
The gatekeepers to the program may have, in recent years, excluded the poorest performing schools and left fewer to participate, but that has done nothing to discourage families. Quite the contrary, while the number of participating schools in the program declined from 120 to 107 in the five-year period of the study, student enrollment grew by 18 percent to nearly 21,000 students in the 2010-11 academic year.
And the higher standards may be doing less to dampen the unique characteristics of each participating school than to strengthen their core missions. Wolf said that many of the students in the project’s study were one to two grade levels behind academically, and each school employed varying strategies of support and instruction with two goals in mind: high school graduation and college enrollment.
Higher standards may be doing less to dampen the unique characteristics of each participating school than to strengthen their core missions.
These conclusions come at critical time for the voucher program. While the researchers examined the voucher’s effects on Milwaukee’s poorest, the program has expanded to include students who come from households with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty level. And Milwaukee is no longer alone; a sister program now exists in Racine, Wisconsin. All of these changes have come despite the objections of the state Department of Public Instruction, which has over the years shamefully used its position to disparage the voucher program and the snapshot test performance of its students in press releases and in public assemblies. (Additionally, the School Choice Demonstration Project found that the disability rate among voucher recipients is, conservatively, four times higher than the rate reported by the department.)
In other words, the findings give everyone something to consider, but especially those legislators that are looking to establish new or enhance existing private school options. Milwaukee has provided its poorest students with a school choice that has led to reading gains and college enrollment rates that outpace the performance in public schools (math gains were similar between samples of voucher students and public school students) but some of that achievement may have come from the greater accountability that voucher supporters once resisted.
A public school establishment may react with pomposity and skepticism, but the evidence can show what the program has accomplished and can point the way to more work that needs to be done.