School Choice & Charters

Study: Milwaukee Voucher Students Have Diploma Edge

By Catherine Gewertz — January 28, 2008 4 min read
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Students who participate in Milwaukee’s private-school-voucher program graduate from high school at significantly higher rates than those who attend regular secondary schools in the city, a new study contends.

The report, which was scheduled to be released Jan. 28 by SchoolChoice Wisconsin, a group that supports the voucher program, concludes that an estimated 57 percent of the freshmen enrolled in private high schools in the choice program in 2002-03 had completed high school four years later, compared with an estimated 43 percent of those in the same 2006 graduating class in regular Milwaukee public high schools.

Analysis of the three previous graduating classes showed regular Milwaukee public high school students with significantly lower completion rates than those who chose to use the state tuition subsidies to attend private high schools.

Factoring in the effects of retention of some students in 9th grade, and of students’ movement into and out of the district, reduces the difference in graduation rates between the two sets of schools to about 10 percentage points for three of the four years, the report says. With those adjustments, it says, the Milwaukee public schools’ 2005-06 graduation rate was 53 percent, compared with 64 percent in the voucher-program schools.

The 17-year-old voucher program, enacted by the Wisconsin legislature, serves about 18,500 students in 122 private schools. About 87,000 students are enrolled in Milwaukee’s public schools this year.

More Graduates?

John Robert Warren, the author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, concludes that if students in Milwaukee’s public high schools had graduated at the same rate as those in the voucher program, the city’s schools would have turned out 1,870—14.3 percent—more graduates during the four years studied, 2002-03 to 2005-06.

The study expands on a 2004 SchoolChoice Wisconsin report that found higher graduation rates in voucher-program schools than in Milwaukee public high schools for the class of 2003.

Comparing Graduation Rates

The study estimated graduation rates for schools attended by students receiving vouchers and Milwaukee public schools. The rates can’t be compared across the years, because the number of schools included differs each year.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: SchoolChoice Wisconsin

Milwaukee schools Superintendent William G. Andrekopoulos rejected the new report’s findings in an interview last week. His district’s graduation rate has gone from 61 percent in 2002-03 to 68 percent in 2005-06, he said, and is projected to reach 70 percent for the 2006-07 year.

Wisconsin’s graduation rate involves calculating how many students drop out of a given graduating class during a four-year period, how many receive completion credentials other than diplomas, and how many get regular diplomas. Mr. Andrekopoulos argued that the four-year tracking method used in the new study undercounts graduates by not accounting for student mobility.

“Certainly, we have a way to go to improve the performance of our students. I’m not questioning that,” he said in an interview. “But when I see these reports, it bothers me because they are designed for political reasons, … to send a political message that the public school system is failing.”

Mr. Warren defended his study, noting that he used special calculations to adjust for factors including student mobility, and that the voucher-program schools still performed better.

“It’s perfectly legitimate to argue about methodology,” he said. “But we’re using fairly sound data-collection techniques and fairly transparent analytic techniques. Everything is in the report.”

Susan Mitchell, the president of SchoolChoice Wisconsin, said politics played no part in the study.

“One of the aspects of debate about public school choice is whether it produces school improvement,” she said in an interview. “Part of our mission is to look at that and add information to the debate.”

Reasons Unclear

According to the report, the data show that students in the voucher-program high schools are more likely to graduate than those in Milwaukee public schools, but do not rule out the possibility that other factors, such as a potentially higher level of family motivation implicit in selecting a private school experience, could account for the graduation-rate differences.

“Whether this association is causal in nature—that is, whether these higher graduation rates are due to selection bias or to something real that is going on in [voucher-program] schools—is a question that can only be addressed using a stronger research design,” Mr. Warren writes.

He cites a longitudinal study at the University of Arkansas, the School Choice Demonstration Project, as promising a better understanding of what causes different outcomes at the two types of schools. That project plans to issue the first of five annual reports Feb. 25.

“With the longitudinal tracking of choice and [Milwaukee public schools] students as part of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s evaluation, we will have even greater confidence in graduation rates,” Jay P. Greene, a University of Arkansas at Fayetteville professor who conducted the 2004 SchoolChoice Wisconsin study of graduation rates and is a co-investigator on the longitudinal study, wrote in an e-mail to Education Week about Mr. Warren’s report.

“Until those results are available, I view Warren’s numbers as our best understanding of the rates at which choice and MPS students are graduating high school.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Study: Milwaukee Voucher Students Have Diploma Edge

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