By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst
The School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) unveiled the findings from the fifth and final year of their longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) on Monday, addressing a crowd of educational stakeholders with promising news about the country’s first modern voucher program.
For the first time in five years, the study found statistically significant differences between students in Milwaukee Public Schools and those in the MPCP. This meant that students in seventh and 10th grade showed proven progress in reading when compared to similar pupils in MPS. The study worked hard to ensure that the control group of students on each side was statistically matched heading into the longitudinal study. This means that the students observed were on equal footing heading into these observations, and their growth is a reflection of their environment rather than where they started.
Positive educational achievement results in reading weren’t the only positive factor discussed in Monday’s presentation. Voucher students also showed observable, but not statistically significant, improvements in math. They had higher graduation rates and were more likely to attend and remain in college as their educational careers progress. They were also more likely to attend four-year colleges than two-year institutions.
Additionally, the study uncovered new data revolving around the status of special needs children in the MPCP. The SCDP used a variety of methods to discredit a recent Department of Public Instruction figure that 1.6 percent of students in the program have disabilities. The study showed that 14.6 percent of students that attended both MPS and MPCP schools in the five-years of observation were classified as participating in special education while in MPS institutions.
This figure was the high end of three different estimates that the SCDP used. Survey data from parents in the MPCP suggested that 11.4 percent of all students using vouchers had special needs. This estimate was 7.5 percent when applying MPS administrator designations for students. All of these figures were significantly higher than DPI’s estimate, which hinged on the number of students requesting exceptions or accommodations in last year’s round of accountability testing.
However, independent charter schools showed a lack of growth for the first time in the course of the study. While private schools that transitioned to 2R charter schools posted strong gains when compared to regular institutions, the rest of the schools in this sample showed no significant difference from their MPS counterparts. This broke a string of statistical growth that had been seen over the past four years.
While the news painted a positive picture for the program, not everyone attending the conference agreed that the results were a step forward for vouchers.
Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) president Bob Peterson didn’t share this enthusiasm for thle results. After stating that he was “overwhelmed by all the data,” Peterson went on to imply that the gains found in choice schools were the result of cheating. He cited examples of public school fraud examples in Atlanta and in Washington, D.C. as cases that could apply to voucher schools that drove these 2012 results. He blamed a lack of accountability in private schools as his source of skepticism when it came to the SCDP’s longitudinal study.
Brother Bob Smith, the president of Messmer Catholic Schools who spoke immediately after Peterson, denounced Peterson’s claims as insulting. Smith cited that transparency and accountability have always been a part of private schools through accreditation, standards, and parent involvement. Study organizers Wolf and Witte also were quick to point out that the testing mechanisms used have systems to detect fraud on both sides of the spectrum in public and private schools.
Notably absent from the event were members from the Department of Public Instruction or the Wisconsin Educational Association Council (WEAC). Superintendent Tony Evers was invited to share his comments on the study but declined. Peterson suggested that the reason for this was because DPI failed to receive an advance copy of the report. Wolf and his cohorts refuted that idea. [Editor’s note: Superintendent Evers and the DPI chose not to participate in the discussion prior to the event, and therefore were not sent an advance copy of the study’s findings. We apologize for any confusion that the wording of the previous sentence may have caused.]
The presentation ran down the results of an independent five-year longitudinal study that broke down students to create an apples-to-apples comparison between matched samples of similar students between choice and regular public schools. At no point in the five-year span did it find a negative effect from voucher schools. However, only once – in 2012 – did it find statistically significant results that show that MPCP students are outperforming students in MPS.
2012 was a breakthrough year for the study, and an endorsement of school choice in Wisconsin. Milwaukee’s voucher students posted significant gains in reading and continued a trend of stronger graduation rates and college attendance. These schools are creating stronger students – and just as importantly, giving children and parents the freedom to find the education that fits them best. In a year where Wisconsin school choice had its largest expansion in over a decade, this is a motivating result that will benefit students in the state’s lowest performing districts for years to come.