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Vouchers Are Still an Issue in Milwaukee

By Walt Gardner — February 07, 2018 1 min read

The debate over vouchers will likely never end, but that does not mean it’s useless taking a closer look at the birthplace of this innovation (“Do School Vouchers Work? Milwaukee’s Experiment Suggests an Answer,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29).

Since 1990, parents in Wisconsin have been given state-funded vouchers to be used to educate their children in private schools. (The initial plan barred religious schools.) To date, about one-quarter of students - nearly 29,000 - have participated. Have vouchers worked as intended? According to an analysis conducted by The Wall Street Journal, they have as long as enrollment of voucher students has been kept low. In short, there is a tipping point beyond which there is little difference in performance between public and private schools.

What the study did not explain, however, is what criteria were used by private and religious schools in admitting students. That’s an important question because the bulk of schools with the highest voucher enrollments were in the bottom quartiles of private schools for results on state exams. In order to look good, private and religious schools will quite naturally want to cherry pick students. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, by law must enroll all who show up at their door regardless of ability or motivation. As a result, I’m surprised that private and religious schools didn’t far surpass their competition.

It’s important to note that Milwaukee has been studied before (The original name was the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.) Paul Peterson and John Witte looked at the same student data in 1996 and reached opposite conclusions. How is that possible? Actually, it’s not uncommon to find experts differing on the available evidence. It’s hard to prevent ideology from seeping into investigations. What surprises me is that so many years after vouchers began, we still can’t agree on their benefits. I doubt we ever will.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.