The “last word” on Milwaukee vouchers should lead us to new debates on standards

The researchers behind the School Choice Demonstration
Project have
given us their last word on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
, and the
news largely is good for the nation’s oldest school voucher enterprise. A
sample of voucher students made larger reading gains than their counterparts in
Milwaukee Public Schools and voucher students continue to show higher
graduation rates. But more significant may be the implication that higher
standards and accountability are partly responsible for the progress.

By the time the
project gathered data during its final year of study, the schools participating
in the voucher program were required to abide by a number of new regulations.
Besides requirements to adopt curriculum, instructional, and graduation
standards, the participating private schools had to test their voucher students
with the same assessments used in public schools, and each school had to report
the results. At a minimum, these new regulations “played a role” in generating
the achievement gains found in the final year of the study, said Patrick J.
Wolf, the project’s principal investigator and professor at the University of Arkansas.

The results show a need to further
explore the right balance between parental choice and state standards.

“We cannot determine conclusively how big a role the
accountability policy played, however, only that the combination of Choice and
accountability left the MPCP students in our study with significantly higher
levels of reading gains than their carefully matched peers in MPS after four
years,” Wolf said.

Whatever the effect, the results show a need to further
explore the right balance between parental choice and state standards, even if
that discussion leaves many voucher proponents with a bad case of heartburn.
After 21 years, taxpayers want to know what they have gotten for their money in
Milwaukee. The
political process that has enhanced the voucher program in good times and bad
may be showing that Wisconsin
is, after all, on to something.

The gatekeepers to the program may have, in recent years,
excluded the poorest performing schools and left fewer to participate, but that
has done nothing to discourage families. Quite the contrary, while the number
of participating schools in the program declined from 120 to 107 in the
five-year period of the study, student enrollment grew by 18 percent to nearly
21,000 students in the 2010-11 academic year.

And the higher standards may be doing less to dampen the
unique characteristics of each participating school than to strengthen their
core missions. Wolf said that many of the students in the project’s study were
one to two grade levels behind academically, and each school employed varying
strategies of support and instruction with two goals in mind: high school
graduation and college enrollment.

Higher standards may be doing less to dampen the
unique characteristics of each participating school than to strengthen their
core missions.

These conclusions come at critical time for the voucher
program. While the researchers examined the voucher’s effects on Milwaukee’s poorest, the
program has expanded to include students who come from households with incomes
up to 300 percent of the poverty level. And Milwaukee
is no longer alone; a sister program now exists in Racine, Wisconsin.
All of these changes have come despite the objections of the state Department
of Public Instruction, which has over the years shamefully used its position to
disparage the voucher program and the snapshot test performance of its students
in press releases and in public assemblies. (Additionally, the School Choice
Demonstration Project found that the disability rate among voucher recipients
is, conservatively, four times higher than the rate reported by the department.)

In other words, the findings give everyone something to
consider, but especially those legislators that are looking to establish new or
enhance existing private school options. Milwaukee has provided its poorest
students with a school choice that has led to reading gains and college
enrollment rates that outpace the performance in public schools (math gains
were similar between samples of voucher students and public school students)
but some of that achievement may have come from the greater accountability that
voucher supporters once resisted.

A public school establishment may react with pomposity and
skepticism, but the evidence can show what the program has accomplished and can
point the way to more work that needs to be done.

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