The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: A Failure

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Last week the final reports from the five-year School Choice Demonstration Project, designed to offer some hard data to the nebulous and nettlesome question of the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program, were released.  Since then, including yesterday in the op-ed pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, many pixels have been wasted talking around the obvious answer, which no one seems to want to say.

I have no such qualms, so here it is:  The voucher program has been a failure.

There are lots of reasons to avoid saying so, and the pragmatist in me acknowledges the biggest one, which is that more than two decades on, there is too much momentum and support for the program for it to end completely, or even in large measure.  Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and 22 years of motion is really hard to stop.  Indeed, the voucher program could soon see additional expansion absent legislative action (an absence of action some attribute to significant spending by voucher advocates).

So I’m going to say it again:  The voucher program has been a failure.

This of course depends on how you define success.  I’ll get to that eventually.  But by any measure, the MPCP has not not met any of its original goals, and it has not even met what reasonable people would consider reasonable subsequent goals.  Let’s take some one by one.

1.  The voucher program has not substantially improved the education available to students in the program.  In pretty much every study of the program ever done, including the five years’ worth from the SCDP, there has yet to be one that suggests students are significantly better off, in general, in a voucher school than in a Milwaukee public school.  From NAEP to WKCE to any other measure of achievement or gains, there has been no unequivocal suggestion that students on vouchers in voucher schools are getting a better education overall than students in the public schools.

Caveats abound, of course, and Alan Borsuk’s contribution to the MJS voucherfest yesterday is a classic entry in the glass-half-full writing he specializes in:

What’s there to cheer for? Specific high performing schools – voucher, charter and MPS. [. . .] Five years and three dozen reports later, we know a lot about comparing the streams of Milwaukee education – and, it seems to me, it’s time to move past that. It’s time to focus on success school by school and what can be done to increase it effectively.

In other words, if a student is attending a quality MPS/charter/MPCP school, that student will succeed!  If that student is not, that student will not!  But two things need saying here.  One I think is obvious, which is that a student who is likely to succeed is going to be successful wherever she goes to school.  (This is not universal, but generally true.)

The second is that, well, not necessarily.  Name a “quality” voucher school.  Then go to pages 508 to 511–yes, I know! the whole thing is 714 pages!–of this pdf, which the state Department of Public Instruction compiled.  Is that school’s name there?  The schools on that list are there because, as the document explains, the scores of their voucher students (i.e., the ones you and I are paying for) on 2010-2011 state tests were as low or lower than scores from the worst 5% of public schools in Wisconsin.  There are lots of quality MPS schools not on that list, but some of the schools generally thought of as good voucher schools did make the list:  Pius XI, Wisconsin Lutheran, St. Peter, more–in all, 44 voucher schools (of about 107).

What this really suggests–and I’ll say more about this in a minute–is that educating poor and minority children in an environment of poverty and pessimism, such as Milwaukee, is really hard.  I do not fault voucher schools for not being full of win when so many MPS schools (even, lamentably, my own) are on the same list.

(DPI applies some warnings re: that list:  For voucher schools, there is but one year of test information, not three as for public schools; plus, there is no distinction made in those MPCP data for students who were not enrolled for a full year before the test as there is for public schools.)

The last round of the SCDP did find that one measure (the size of the increase in reading scores among a particular sample of voucher students was larger than statistically matched students in MPS) that is positive.  This is only in one subject and only in one year out of five studied.  Voucher critics (and noted national education reform experts) Alex Molnar and Kevin Welner offer a theory–a novel one and not necessarily one I endorse–to explain that even those gains may be illusory.

Regardless, if after the largest and most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the voucher program as it exists there is a a single small, disputable finding that vouchers might be kind sorta better a little bit in one way, the program cannot be called a success.

2.  The voucher program has not created a marketplace of education where parents make informed decisions about their children’s schooling.  From the time that school vouchers were just a gleam in Milt Friedman’s eye, the argument has been that a marketplace, where competition on a level playing field can rule the day, will transform education and then ponies and rainbows for all!

But in Milwaukee we do not have, and we never have had, a real marketplace.  First, the playing field is not level.  Though occasionally over the course of the voucher program the legislature has seen fit to add some regulations to voucher schools, those schools do not have to meet every state or federal requirement that the public schools do.

Second, information about the voucher program is not as available to parents as information about the public schools.  From the beginning, those who keep an eye on such things note that parents are the victims of asymmetric information:  In their 2004 book on the program Public Policy Forum researchers Anneliese Dickman and Emily Van Dunk lamented the lack of information available to parents.  When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did its massive series on the voucher program in 2005 (pdf), they noted that “Parental choice by itself does not assure quality. Some parents pick bad schools–and keep their children in them long after it is clear the schools are failing.”

Even when parents speak with shoe leather, both the PPF and the MJS noted, it didn’t matter.  Though in some years as many as 44% of voucher parents did not return their children to the program, only one school in the program’s first dozen years closed because of parents’ choices.  In later years, the Department of Public Instruction had more authority to shut schools down, so through the 2000s many schools closed at the hands of DPI–not because parents abandoned them.  The sad history of people like Ricardo Brooks or schools like Alex’s Academics of Excellence, and what they did to a generation of children in Milwaukee, is familiar to anyone who has followed the program closely.

3.  The voucher program has not fulfilled its mission of aiding low-income minority students who don’t have access to private schools.  At every major expansion of the program (when religious schools were added in 1998, when the cap was raised in 2006, and this past fall with expansion in Milwaukee and into Racine for the first time), the big tell is that new enrollment into the voucher program was greater than the enrollment increase in the voucher schools.  I’ll let the PPF’s Dickman explain:

Most of the new voucher users appear to have already been enrolled in private school. In 56 schools, the number of new voucher users exceed the growth in total enrollment in the school, while in 13 schools voucher growth and enrollment growth were equal. Over the past 10 years, total enrollment in the schools participating in the program has grown by roughly 5,300 students, while the number of voucher users has increased over twice as much.

While the program enrolls more than 23,000 students in Milwaukee, how many of those students would be in those voucher schools absent a voucher?  The data suggest a lot would.

4.  The voucher program has not proved that schools can do more with less.  For a time, this is where the goalposts moved–voucher supporters gave up on suggesting that choice schools were an improvement over MPS and settled on the claim that they were no worse but they cost less.

I have written elsewhere that the half-price claim is a myth, based on a better comparison of data:  What drives up costs in MPS is very much the requirements voucher schools don’t have to follow, including–perhaps especially–for special education.

The Journal Sentinel‘s former op-ed staffer Patrick McIlheran was a master of this–something I documented frequently at my previous blog home–but late in the game even he gave up on the idea.  But the big clue is that in the last few months there’s been a strong push–indeed, a bill sent out of committee–that would offer schools more than double the current value of a voucher for special-education students.  The bill, as written, doesn’t actually even require voucher schools to hire a special education teacher if it accepts the larger voucher that would accompany a student with special needs.  (Even now, voucher schools are not required to provide services for students who may need them, and in many cases MPS is on the hook for those.)

But I would further suggest that, as more and more data compile to show that MPS is keeping pace with or outperforming voucher schools, MPS is actually to be commended as the system doing more with less:  MPS enrollment is down while MPCP enrollment is up, and–as an MPS spokeswoman pointed out in comments on this very blog–as MPS enrollment has fallen, its special education population has remained steady, meaning more and more of MPS’s students require the extra services voucher schools don’t have to provide.  That MPS results have remained steady or inched up in the face of those challenges is to be commended.

5.  The voucher program has not led to competitive improvements in the Milwaukee Public Schools.  While MPS has improved of late, on balance there is little of its improvement that can be attributed to the MPCP.  The SCDP, in one of its 2009 reports (pdf), suggests “that students fare better academically when they have more options from Milwaukee’s voucher program.”  The better fare is at most, they say “modest.”  A critique of that study (pdf) went further than modest:  “the practical effect of competition through vouchers appears to be small, if not negligible.”

Since 2009, no additional study of competition’s affect on MPS has been done by the MPCP or, as far as I know, anyone else.  The best and most recent data we have, then, say that competition never produced the overall gains we were promised.

6.  The voucher program has not boosted Milwaukee’s graduation rate.  Though the researchers from the SCDP (as well as pro-voucher third-party groups) keep claiming that voucher students graduate at a slightly higher rate.  But the fact remains that in the years comprising the demonstration project, three-quarters of the studied students who started ninth grade in voucher schools left them.  (The PPF found this year (pdf) at least a 28% turnover rate among all voucher high school students–not just in a sample–between ninth and twelfth grade.)  Which again raises the question:  If so many students are leaving the program, how is this a success of the market?

The SCDP does claim that by some magic mere exposure to the voucher program increases the likelihood of graduation from wherever a student might actually be in their senior year.  I wonder, though, whether that magic isn’t having a parent who takes more than a passing interest in their child’s education–some sort of self-selection.

Among those commenting on the final results of the SCDP last week was Brother Bob Smith of the Messmer schools.  In his piece, he made an astounding claim related exactly to this point, that his school “has a graduation rate more than twice that of Milwaukee Public Schools.”  As Milwaukee graduated 67% of its students according to the latest DPI data available, then I do not know how Brother Bob’s figure is possible.

7.  The voucher program has not created substantially integrated schools, or saved Milwaukee’s middle class.  The Public Policy forum, in its report this year, calls voucher schools “hyper-segregated” and says that 65% of students in the voucher program attend schools that are 90% or higher minority enrolled or 90% or higher low-income enrolled.  The racial and economic make-up of voucher schools, the PPF says, mirrors that of MPS.  The intention of the program, to help low-income and minority students take advantage of the schools and programs that their white and middle-class peers do–is not being met.

Dickman of PPF goes further on the Forum’s blog, connecting the racial and, more importantly, the socioeconomic conditions to the low test scores.  “In both the public and private sectors in Milwaukee,” she writes, “there are very few schools enrolling predominantly minority and low-income students producing high test scores.”  This goes back to what I said earlier:  Quality urban education in very poor schools and very poor communities is hard.  Neither MPS nor voucher schools–nor, in great measure, districts like MPS around the county–can find transformative programs that are affordable and scalable.

Voucher advocates have also argued in recent years–former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist last year, for example, and local voucher devotee George Mitchell more recently–that expanding the voucher program would somehow magically bring white and middle-class folk back to the city.  Mitchell paints a fairy tale picture:  “For starters, in a single stroke, the value of most homes in Milwaukee would rise by thousands of dollars or more. Second, the budgets of hardworking, taxpaying families who live in Milwaukee–dare I say, ‘the 99%’–would get a huge boost. Third, a major impetus for the region’s worsening residential segregation would be undercut.”

The whole thing, particularly Mitchell’s invocation of “the 99%,” is laughable.  This is in no small part because he cites unnamed “researchers” whose breakthrough discovery is–you may want to sit down for this–that parents buy homes where the schools are good.  But if I have done anything here today, I hope I have shown that there is little to suggest that MPCP schools are good, are perceived as good, or that competition with those schools has suddenly made MPS good.

To be sure, there’s a catch-22 here, both for MPS and voucher schools.  We know that integrated schools, schools with more white and middle-class students, have better aggregate test scores, graduation rates, and other positive metrics.  But convincing those families to enroll in schools that have low scores, low graduation rates, high suspension rates, and bad reputations is very hard to do.  Even if some parents were enticed to stay, or lured back, it seems unlikely that they would integrate Milwaukee’s most segregated neighborhoods.  Throwing taxpayer money at vouchers, and further weakening the ability of MPS to do its best with the students left behind, in a quixotic quest to bring people back to the city who almost certainly aren’t coming back is just plain dumb.

I suppose there is a legitimate argument to be made that there have been positive effects in the community from Milwaukee’s voucher program.  For example, the voucher program has used public tax money to rescue a system of parochial schools that would have collapsed without it.  Fully three-quarters of voucher students attend a religious school, most of them in the city’s Catholic schools, which number far less now even with voucher support than in the heyday of Milwaukee’s Catholic past.

And moreover, the voucher program has created a cottage industry to support, promote, and profit from voucher schools or, as the SCDP shows, study them.  The 22-year history of vouchers in Milwaukee is chock full of money-making schemes and dreams, and not just–or even not principally–among those running schools.  The number of think tanks, foundations, and advocacy groups collecting and spending money around the voucher question is stunning, spreading far and wide beyond Milwaukee.  For a time, even the mighty Wall Street Journal deigned to endorse candidates for the Milwaukee Board of School Directors on the basis of whether they supported Milwaukee’s voucher program.

But what the 22-year history of the MPCP is not is a success, by any reasonable metric.  The voucher program, simply, has been a failure.

Post By Jay Bullock (30 Posts)

Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View Middle and High School in Milwaukee. He has been writing about education on the internet for almost a decade. He is also a songwriter, essayist, and occasional comedian. Follow him on twitter, @folkbum

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1 Comment

  1. Bob says:

    So school choice is a failure because it is no better that non-choice schools? By the same exact metric, non-choice schools must therefore also be a failure.

    But we knew that already, didn’t we?

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