Another Nail in the School Voucher Coffin

The evidence continues to roll in against the much vaunted Milwaukee school voucher program. The latest results from the Wisconsin state tests show that students in Milwaukee’s school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee public schools in reading and maths.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported this week that the overall results for Milwaukee public schools showed 59% of students scoring proficient or better in reading, while 48% of students scored proficient or better in math. In the voucher program, 55% of students scored proficient or better in reading while 34% scored proficient or better in math. The percentage of low-income students in public schools who scored proficient or better in reading was 55% which was about the same as the voucher program.

The latest results are for tests administered in 2010 to more than 430,000 public-school students in third through eighth grades and 10th grade, and about 10,600 voucher students in the same tested grades. The tests provided the first apples-to-apples achievement comparison between public and individual voucher schools.

The test results bring into question the overall quality of the 21-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was intended to improve results for poor city children in low performing public schools by allowing them to attend higher-performing private schools with publicly funded vouchers. It is the oldest and largest school voucher program in the United States.

Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public school system, told the Journal-Sentinel that the free-market ideas upon which the voucher program was founded has not been borne out over the past two decades, and is not evident in the results of the state test.

The latest results come on top of a major evaluation of the school choice program last year which found students in voucher schools are not achieving any better results than a matched sample of students in public schools.

The study conducted by School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas made a range of comparisons of two years of student achievement growth in reading and mathematics between voucher students and a matched sample of students in Milwaukee public schools. The primary finding in all the comparisons is that, in general, there are few statistically significant differences between growth in student achievement in voucher schools and public schools. Both the voucher students and the matched public school students were performing at similar levels.

Moreover, their scores appear to be similarly distributed – the gap between the highest performing students and the lowest performing students was approximately the same in the two sectors.

The study also found that in the case of students who have remained in the public or private sector for all three years of the study, the public school students did better than the voucher students in mathematics achievement growth, but not in reading.

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