University of Arkansas Research: School Choice in Milwaukee Benefits Some Students, Saves Money

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas researchers presented information Thursday, March 26, that shows a school voucher program in Milwaukee appears to be having a positive effect on the achievement of boys using vouchers to attend private schools, although girls appear to be doing somewhat better in public schools. The voucher program also has led to increased achievement for the children who remain in Milwaukee’s public schools while saving the state millions of dollars, they report.

The results of the Milwaukee voucher research project, scheduled to run for three more years, are expected to answer 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 Milwaukee Parental Choice Programwas the first urban school voucher program of its kind when it started in 1990. The program enrolled 19,069 students in 2007-08 at 124 private schools through the use of vouchers.

The second year of an evaluation of the program shows it “has produced a rising tide that has lifted all boats, but that tide has not exactly been a tsunami,” according to the summary written by Patrick J. Wolf, University of Arkansas professor of education reform and holder of an endowed chair in school choice. Wolf leads the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research organization based at the University of Arkansas that is conducting the evaluation.

Researchers with the University of Arkansas, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Kentucky, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Westat, a contract research organization based in Rockville, Md., issued eight reports Thursday in Milwaukee followed by a panel discussion that included representatives of the public school system, a school choice organization and the Milwaukee teachers’ union. Wolf, Jay Greene, also the holder of an endowed chair in education reform at the University of Arkansas, and John Witte, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented information from the research.

The Milwaukee Public School system offers an extensive array of school choice programs, making it a place of great interest to educational researchers. In addition to the voucher program, the city has 58 public charter schools that enrolled 17,549 students last year as well as magnet, community, open-enrollment and inter-district school choice options.

The research team is looking at the effects of the voucher program on such outcomes as student achievement, parent and student satisfaction, civic values and how parents and students experience the program. The five-year evaluation also will determine the systemic effects of the choice program on education finance, public schools, non-participating students, private school capacity and school-level racial integration.

“With a highly sophisticated research design to generate reliable estimates of the effects of the voucher program on student achievement in both voucher and public schools, and with a total of 36 reports planned over the five years of this project, our study will be the largest and most comprehensive evaluation of a school voucher program conducted to date,” Wolf said.

A study called the Longitudinal Educational Growth Study examines the achievement growth over time of carefully matched panels of voucher and public school students. Led by John Witte, the study reports no statistically significant differences overall so far in achievement gains for students in the program compared to similar students in Milwaukee public schools. The data suggest that boys gained an extra 6.4 scale score points in reading if enrolled in the voucher program, whereas girls gained an extra 5.2 scale score points in reading if enrolled in Milwaukee public schools. 

Both differences among the gender subgroups are statistically significant. The authors caution that these early results after just one year need to be confirmed by additional data before they are considered to be conclusive.

Greene and Ryan Marsh, a research associate at Northwestern, wrote the report that examined the effect of the voucher program on student achievement in the Milwaukee Public Schools system. They ask whether school vouchers put pressure on public school systems to improve or instead produce two distinct groups: choosers and losers.

Using individual student-level data from 1999 to 2006, Greene and Marsh found that competition induced by the voucher program led to improved academic performance by students who stayed in the public school system. They described the competitive effect as positive and statistically significant but modest.

“It appears that Milwaukee public schools are more attentive to the academic needs of students when those students have more opportunities to leave those schools,” the report said.

Robert M. Costrell, also a University of Arkansas professor of education reform and holder of an endowed chair in accountability, authored a study of the program’s fiscal impact. By analyzing educational funding formulas and enrollment patterns, Costrell estimated that the school choice program saved the state of Wisconsin $37 million in fiscal year 2009. However, the savings were not distributed evenly among taxpayers. Those who pay statewide taxes and taxes on property outside Milwaukee received sizable fiscal benefits from the operation of the program while Milwaukee property owners pay higher property taxes as a result of the funding formulas.Claims that the program’s “funding flaw” has been fixed are inaccurate, according to Costrell, due to a misunderstanding of how the formulas actually work.

All of the reports are available at the School Choice Demonstration Project link at http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP.html on the department of education reform Web site. Other topics were a descriptive report on participating schools, annual school testing summary for 2007-08, school choice and home prices, and parent and student experiences with choice.

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