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Picture Still Found Mixed for Choice Program in Wis.

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Although test results for students in Milwaukee's private-school-choice experiment remain mixed, enrollment in participating schools has grown and some problems encountered during the program's first two years have eased, a study has found.

The independent evaluation of the closely watched Milwaukee Parental Choice Program concludes that the experiment has benefited some students from low-income families who were performing poorly in the city's public schools. But it cautions against using the program to make a case either for or against statewide private-school-voucher schemes.

"Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that the issues surrounding choice are complex and that the emerging evidence points in several directions,'' says the evaluation, which was conducted by John F. Witte, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The Wisconsin legislature created the program in 1990 to allow a limited number of low-income Milwaukee students to attend private, nonsectarian schools at public expense.

After a bumpy first year in which fewer students than expected enrolled and one participating school shut down, participation in the experiment is rising, the report notes.

The number of schools involved has nearly doubled, from six last year to 11 this year, the program's third year in operation. Student enrollment has increased to 613 this year, up from 521 last year and 341 in the first year.

Attrition Rate

The student-attrition rate, however, remains somewhat high. The rate at the end of the second year was 35 percent, compared with 46 percent in the first year.

The high first-year rate had been blamed on the closing of the one participating school and legal uncertainties that clouded the program's future. Last spring, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program's constitutionality. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

The report says the second-year rate is perhaps no higher than rates in the city's public schools.

"The problem obviously goes beyond the schools, involving the consequences of poverty, unemployment, and poor housing conditions,'' the report notes.

Test results for students in the choice program and for those in control groups in the public schools were "mixed,'' according to the report.

In the first year, students in private schools made larger gains in reading, while those in public schools made greater gains in mathematics.

In the second year, the private school students' scores dropped in reading and were stable in math, while the public school students' scores were stable in both subjects.

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