Project on Milwaukee Vouchers Shares Baseline Findings

By Catherine Gewertz — February 27, 2008 3 min read
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A major research effort that aims to measure the effects of the Milwaukee voucher program this week released a baseline portrait of the program, its students, and a comparable group of students in the city’s public schools.

The one-year snapshot of 2006-07 found little difference in state test scores between students who use the tuition subsidies to attend private schools and those who attend public schools.

The finding is one of many released Feb. 25 by the School Choice Demonstration Project, based at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Others include an analysis of the fiscal impact of the voucher program, statistical profiles of the two sets of schools, and measures of parents’ and students’ satisfaction with them.

Researchers cautioned that the data are “merely descriptive” and cannot explain the voucher program’s effect, if any, on student achievement. So far, they said, the data offer a numerical and descriptive sketch of the program in the study’s initial year.

During the five years of the study, the researchers plan to issue 36 reports in 10 areas, including the financing of public education, school-level racial integration, and the way parents choose schools.

The researchers hope to shed light on whether the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program benefits students, as its advocates argued it would when it was founded 18 years ago. With 18,000 children using state-funded tuition vouchers to attend about 120 private schools, including religious schools, it is the largest and oldest such program in the country.

‘Eyes Wide Open’

“We’re going in with our eyes wide open,” principal investigator Patrick J. Wolf said in an interview. “We know that controversy continues to surround this program. We’re not looking to push vouchers. We are not looking to kill vouchers. We’re looking to bring extensive and reliable new information to the public and policymakers about the total range of effects that this program is having.”

Co-investigators on the project are Jay P. Greene, who is the head of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s department of education reform, where Mr. Wolf is a professor, and John F. Witte, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Six national foundations fund the project.

The researchers have chosen a matched-student design that they believe will enable them to measure the program’s effects. They will compare 2,700 voucher recipients with 2,700 demographically similar peers in Milwaukee public schools.

In addition to collecting test-score data, they will study schools on-site, and plumb students’ and parents’ experiences in voucher, charter, and regular public schools through surveys and focus groups.

One portion of the report released this week shows that on Wisconsin’s state mathematics, reading, and science tests, 4th graders in voucher program schools scored 8 to 13 points lower than socioeconomically similar students in Milwaukee public schools. Eighth graders scored 6 to 9 points higher than their public school peers. Too few 10th graders in voucher schools took the state tests to allow a comparison.

Another part of the study showed that parents whose children attend voucher schools have lower incomes, but higher levels of education, than those whose children go to public schools.

Until recently, students in Wisconsin private schools did not have to take state tests. But a 2005-06 change in state law required voucher schools to administer them to a representative panel of 2,727 students. That change, Mr. Wolf said, helps enable the “apples to apples comparison” of academic achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week

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