Choice Cuts

The real impact of Milwaukee's vouchers


Since 1990, a limited school choice program has allowed about 1,300 low-income students to attend a number of secular private schools in the Milwaukee area. As many as 15,000 may be allowed to participate in the coming year, and religious schools may become eligible to join the program.

Critics, however, have charged that vouchers don't improve education. Drawing on annual evaluations by University of Wisconsin researchers, the American Federation of Teachers' Albert Shanker has claimed that "private schools are not outperforming public schools." The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has announced that "Milwaukee's plan has failed to demonstrate that vouchers…can spark school improvement."

This summer, however, the data and techniques used in the program evaluations became available for the first time to outside scholars–yielding quite different results. In "The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data from the Program's Evaluation," researchers from the University of Houston and Harvard University conclude that the Wisconsin evaluations fail a number of standard statistical and procedural measures, ignore a variety of pertinent data sets, and fail to categorize students by such meaningful categories as grade, year of application, and school.

Rather than lumping all students together, the new study compares students who enrolled in the school choice program with a control group of students who wanted to participate but could not, because of limited space. The cumulative effect of several years of enrollment in choice schools is nothing short of impressive, according to study authors Jay P. Greene, Paul E. Peterson, Jiangtao Du, Leesa Boeger, and Chris L. Frazier. If the randomly selected students remained in the choice experiment for three years, their average reading and math scores were, respectively, 3 and 5 percentile points higher than those in the control group. If they stayed for four years, their reading and math scores were, on average, 5 and 12 percentile points higher. Over 80 percent of the students were either Latino or African American.

Putting the results of Milwaukee's voucher program in perspective, the authors note, "If similar success could be achieved for all minority students nationwide, it could close the gap separating white and minority test scores by somewhere between one-third and more than one-half."