Voucher Experiment Draws a Blank

The much vaunted Milwaukee school voucher program has been shown to be a failure. Last month, a major report on the 20 year-old scheme concluded that students in the voucher program “generally are achieving achievement growth rates that are comparable to similar MPS [Milwaukee Public School] students.”

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), which began in 1990, provides government funded vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools in Milwaukee. Approximately 20,000 children use a voucher to attend either secular or religious private schools. It is the oldest and largest school voucher program in the United States.

Voucher advocates argue that using vouchers to allow parents to make their choice of schools and greater competition between schools for enrolments would improve student achievement and school results. The new report shows that this has not happened in Milwaukee.

The report conducted 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 is 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.

The reports are part of the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas which is measuring and estimating student growth in achievement in reading and mathematics in grades 3 to 8 over a five-year period. It compares the results of a random sample of MPCP students and a matched sample of public school students.

This is the third annual evaluation of Milwaukee vouchers by the project and the third that has failed to uncover significant differences between students who go to voucher schools and students in the regular public schools. The second report, released last year, found that students in private schools utilizing vouchers achieved at the same rate in math and reading as the students in the matched-MPS sample.

These findings are a major blow to advocates of vouchers in Australia and elsewhere. The MPCP has long been held up by voucher advocates as a beacon for school improvement. For example, last year the Institute for Public Affairs published a report advocating vouchers for Australia and cited the success of the MPCP in support.

In a further blow, two of the three primary authors of the report – Patrick Wolff and Jay Greene – are well-known in the United States for their advocacy of school choice and vouchers to improve student achievement. Major funding for the project was provided by foundations that are known to support school choice.

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