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Milwaukee Voucher Plan Found Not To 'Skim' Cream

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By Lynn Olson

An independent evaluation of Milwaukee's parental-choice program indicates that it is attracting students who were not succeeding in the public schools and who probably are more likely than average to have behavioral problems.

Those findings contrast sharply with predictions that the nation's first such publicly funded choice plan enabling pupils to attend private schools would "skim off' the city's brightest youngsters.

The first-year report by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, led by the political scientist John F. Witte, also found that parents in the choice program are more involved in their children's education at home and at school than the average public- school parent in Milwaukee. They also are more satisfied with their children's schooling.

The study, however, found no dramatic gains in the test scores of students in the program. And it noted that the instruction received in participating private schools is generally similar to that of the public schools.

"This program is not now, nor probably will it ever be, the answer for the extensive and complex problems associated with providing a quality education for Milwaukee children," Mr. Witte wrote.

But he added: "It is equally difficult to believe, as some opponents have argued, that given the current size and limitations of the program, it poses a serious threat to the public school system."

The report recommended that the program continue for at least sever- al more years. Expansion "is not currently needed or recommended," it stated.

'Hit the Target'

Lawmakers enacted the experimental program in 1990 to permit a limited number of low-income students to attend private, nonsectarian schools at public expense.

Since then, the program has become mired in a lawsuit that threatens its future. A decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is pending. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

Mr. Witte was appointed by the state department of public instruction in September 1990 to evaluate the program.

As of September, it enrolled 562 students, 96 percent of whom were black or Hispanic. Enrollment is limited to children whose family incomes are less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level. In addition, no more than 1 percent of Milwaukee public-school students may participate in any given year.

The analysis found that participating families were less well-off financially than the average family in the Milwaukee public schools. About 78 percent earned less than $15,000 in 1989.

"It hit the target population," said Mr. Witte, "which makes it very different than the generalized voucher programs that are being suggested in other places."

Something To 'Emulate'

The study also found that parents' involvement in their children's education increased upon the youngsters' enrollment in the private schools, even though the parents were already more active in the children's learning at home and at school than the average Milwaukee parent.

Mr. Witte attributed the difference to the heavy emphasis on parental involvement in the private schools in the program. Two of the schools require parents to sign contracts in which they pledge to stay deeply involved with their children's education.

He suggested that that type of commitment was something the public schools "might emulate."

The one area in which parental involvement declined among parents in the program related to discipline, which Mr. Witte described as "positive."

Even more striking was the shift in attitudes toward their children's education among program participants.

For example, there was a 29 percent increase in the percentage of parents who said they were "very satisfied" with the amount their child learned in the new school, compared with the prior public school.

The proportion of those who were "very satisfied" with the "opportunities for parental involvement" also increased, by 41 percent.

But the study cautioned that "merely being a private school does not necessarily ensure an adequate educational environment."

One of the 10 participating schools-- Juanita Virgil Academy-withdrew from the program halfway through the first year, and later went out of business.

Parents at the school had complained about transportation problems, a shortage of books and materials, overcrowded classrooms, dirty facilities, and a lack of discipline.

The researchers proposed a number of changes to protect participating families in the future. These include requiring that participating schools have a formal governance structure, including a board of directors; that they conduct and make public an annual financial audit; and that they meet all current and future state "outcome" requirements, including statewide tests, dropout reporting, and a school report card.

The study also found a 35 percent attrition rate among participating students between the program's first and second years. Researchers could not explain the unexpected phenomenon, which they are still investigating. Mr. Witte said it might stem, in part, from continued uncertainty over the program's future.

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