Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Milwaukee Voucher Experiment, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Milwaukee Voucher Experiment, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Article excerpt

The ugliest outcome of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program if we consider the program's initial purpose and intent may be yet to come, Mr. Witte warns.

THE MILWAUKEE Parental Choice Program began in 1990 as the first educational voucher program in the United States. While some may not consider the program in its original form to be a "voucher program," because payments went directly to schools, it is referred to as such in most analyses. I will use the terms voucher program and choice program interchangeably.

The program was initially limited in a number of ways: families had to have incomes of 175% of the poverty line or less, students could not have been in private schools in the previous year, only secular private schools could participate, schools had to select choice students randomly if there were more applicants than available seats in a grade, and there were limits placed on the number of voucher students in each school (originally 49%, raised to 65% in 1993) and in the program as a whole (originally approximately 950, raised to 1,500 in 1993). By subsequent court order, the private schools were not required to admit students with disabilities. The voucher amount was set at the per-pupil state aid that would have gone to the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system. The vouchers have risen over the years from approximately $2,500 to $4,900 per child.

In the fall of 1990, I was asked by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to evaluate the voucher program. I did so for five years, ending with a Fifth-Year Report issued on 31 December 1995. I raised funds for the evaluations from private foundations and the University of Wisconsin. My compensation came only in the form of partial released time from teaching obligations.

Our research team collected data using surveys, case-study methods, outcome measures, and administrative data. We wrote five annual reports and have put the Fourth- and Fifth-Year Reports (which are cumulative), as well as the quantitative data and other papers and articles, on the Internet.1 I encourage readers to refer to the original reports and papers, which provide most of the evidence for this summary article. The results of this "experiment" are not easily or simply summarized. As previous reports attest, there were positive and negative results of the program. In the last several years a great deal has been written about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, most coming from voucher supporters who have been unhappy with some aspects of our reports and conclusions. Findings from both our research and that of our critics were used in the legislative debates in 1995 that led to the expansion of the program to include parochial schools; they were also cited in subsequent court cases. This short article summarizes what I believe are the good, the bad, and, unfortunately, the ugly aspects of the voucher program in Milwaukee.2

The Good

One of the key issues in the theory and study of educational vouchers is whether it is possible to design a voucher program targeted toward poor families, providing them with opportunities similar to those available to the middle class. Results from the Milwaukee experiment indicate that we can do that. The voucher program, as originally designed, attracted very poor, mostly minority families whose children were not doing well in the public schools. For example, 93% of the choice students were nonwhite, and the average family income was approximately $12,000 per year. The parents had also become very dissatisfied with their prior public schools and thus were looking for an alternative. Five years of consistent data from separate sets of applicants substantiated these patterns.

Alternatives to MPS for these families were not readily available. Moving to the suburbs was very difficult, given the high level of city/suburban segregation in Milwaukee and the paucity of low-income housing in the suburbs. …

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