Milwaukee vouchers under a microscope

This week, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel features a week-long qualitative assessment of that city's landmark voucher program. Reporters visited 106 of Milwaukee's 115 "voucher schools" and emerged with an interesting but mixed story. "Those visits, along with dozens of interviews with parents, students, teachers, principals, administrators, and academics, revealed that many of the popular conceptions and politically motivated depictions of the program are incomplete and, in some cases, flat-out wrong." The topics addressed throughout the seven-part series include the level of accountability for voucher schools in the city, why and how parents select voucher schools for their kids, and the extent to which voucher kids participate in religious education (seventy percent of voucher-bearing pupils attend religious schools). Sprinkled throughout are anecdotes about particular schools, especially those that seem to have management problems. Overall, the series makes a case, through anecdotal evidence, that while the program has done a great job of opening up more options for all low-income parents and students in Milwaukee, one key part of the market competition theory (i.e., that parents would pull kids out of failing voucher schools, thus closing them down) isn't being borne out. On the whole, this is a tough but fair-minded series that abounds in good news and bad news for advocates and opponents alike. At day's end, however, what's most needed is solid quantitative research into schools' (and program's) effectiveness in "adding academic value" to children. Voucher supporters should note, though, that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's anecdotes build a pretty persuasive case for working harder to weed out participating schools that aren't doing much for kids. That may be more than should be expected of parents.  

"Inside choice schools: 15 years of vouchers," by Alan J. Borsuk and Sarah Carr, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 13, 2005