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Updated Study Finds Positive Effects for Students, Public Schools Stemming from Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

Comments | Posted in mi perspectives | By MacIver Institute | Posted March 29, 2011 9:58 AM

By Christian D’Andrea MacIver Institute Education Analyst

A recently updated study examined every piece of empirical research conducted on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – and found nothing but positive results for the city’s schools and students. These improvements weren’t just tied to students in the MPCP alone, either.

The study, conducted by Dr. Greg Forster, a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice, examined empirical research on school voucher programs across the country, ranging from Maine and Vermont’s Town Tuitioning programs to Florida’s since-overturned A+ voucher system. It uncovered 22 empirical studies and found that 21 of the 22 pieces of research found positive effects in public schools that were exposed to school choice programs. The 22nd study, which focused on Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, found no visible effect on the district’s public schools from the existence of choice.

According to Forster, six empirical studies have been conducted to examine the effects that the MPCP has had on public schools in Milwaukee. All six studies, which include work from Harvard University, Stanford University, the Federal Reserve Bank, and other organizations, found a positive result from the voucher program. Their common thread was a modest, but significant, improvement in the city’s public schools due to the exposure to the voucher program.

Forster's 2011 Update to the Win/Win Study

These results ranged from small educational gains in schools where more than 2/3rds of students were eligible for vouchers (Hoxby, Harvard University), to better academic results in public schools that are more vulnerable to losing students to vouchers (Chakrabarti, Federal Reserve Bank), and even positive year-to-year academic trends tied to increased exposure to the MPCP (Forster and Greene, Manhattan Institute).

A trend between all six studies emerged – the more eligible students for vouchers in a neighborhood school’s local area, the more likely these public schools were to post educational gains compared to other public institutions.

These studies suggest that greater exposure to competition via vouchers spurs improvement in public schools in Milwaukee. Classrooms that are faced with more children potentially leaving for different schools have showcased better educational gains than those in the city with less of a threat of losing students. While these results don’t reflect a panacea for the city’s educational problems, they do reflect modest improvements from a program that is relatively small in scale.

Two other studies were examined that look at the effect of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on its participants. These pieces, which were random-sample assessments of student progress and achievement between children in the voucher program and those who remained in public schools, also find positive effects from the MPCP. However, since these data date back to the mid-1990s, they don’t hold the same weight and relevance of the other six Milwaukee studies. In all, 10 random-assignment studies were examined in Forster’s research, with nine holding positive results for students and one showing no discernible effect.

When held up to the gold standard of research methods, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program holds weight as a positive influence on student outcomes. Students in and out of the program benefit, especially when neighboring public schools make strides in the face of potentially losing students. The program allows the state’s largest city to improve education – albeit modestly – while providing an array of learning opportunities at a lower cost than traditional public schools.

Of course, the program isn’t perfect, and it isn’t a cure-all. But it does help students, and Forster’s research shows that this effect isn’t limited to just the kids that leave MPS. Despite its flaws, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is presenting a win/win situation for students in Brew City.