Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Evaluation of school voucher program finds students achieving at same level as peers

Students in Milwaukee's school voucher program scored at levels similar to their peers enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools, according to a study released April 7.

"In the study of student growth over two years, the voucher students are doing about as well in reading and math achievement growth as a carefully matched sample of MPS students," says La Follette School professor John Witte, one of the study's leaders.

La Follette School professor John Witte speaking to a group. La Follette School photo by Bob Rashid taken Friday, November 3, 2006.

Professor John Witte and other school choice researchers released study results in Madison on April 7.

The School Choice Demonstration Project's evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program provides funding for more than 20,000 students to attend private schools in Milwaukee. It is the oldest and largest public voucher program in the United States.

"Students in private schools and students in the Milwaukee Public Schools are doing better than expected when compared to other urban school districts," Witte says. "We also found the voucher program does not increase racial segregation as some of its critics have speculated."

Witte and other researchers from the School Choice Demonstration Project made their comparisons two years after large panels of students in the voucher program and students in the Milwaukee public school system had been carefully matched to each other. The researchers are halfway through their five-year study.

"We still have two more years of data to collect for this longitudinal study," says Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas where the national School Choice Demonstration Project is based, "but at this point the voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers."

The evaluation also found that while students in the choice program perform at levels roughly comparable to similarly income-disadvantaged students in the Milwaukee public school system, they perform better than low-income students in other U.S. urban areas. Families in the choice program reported that their children's commitment to education and study habits are more important harbingers of academic success to them than are test scores.

Dozens of private schools have left the school choice program during the past few years, either because they violated state regulations or failed to attract enough students. The research team concluded that the private schools driven from the program had much lower student test scores than the schools still participating in the choice program.

When the results of the longitudinal Milwaukee voucher research project are completed, they are expected to have answered many questions about the effect voucher systems can have on improving academic achievement and other important student and family outcomes. The data are expected to assist education officials and policymakers around the country as they consider implementing voucher programs. The evaluation project represents the most comprehensive evaluation of school choice in a single place ever attempted, Wolf says.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was the first urban school voucher program of its kind when it started in 1990. In 2008-09, the year studied in this round of reports, the program enrolled 19,803 students in 127 private schools through the use of vouchers. The next set of reports will include an assessment of the effects of the Milwaukee choice program on high school graduation rates.

Voucher kids on par with public school peers, April 8, 2010, Wisconsin Radio Network

Campus Connection: Vouchers, stress rankings and Biddy hoops it up, April 7, 2010, Capital Times

School voucher study results to be released Wednesday, April 7, 2010, La Follette School News

Studies find benefit from charter schools, little effect from voucher program, April 5, 2009, La Follette School News