Policy Studies Journal Confirms Higher Graduation Rates in Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

June 13, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Milwaukee students in voucher schools are more likely to graduate from high school, as well as more likely to attend a four-year college. That’s according to one of the most revealing pieces of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s (SCDP) review of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), and now it’s been peer reviewed and published in the Policy Studies Journal.

Policy Studies Journal is a peer-reviewed academic journal that touches on a wide range of public policy issues. Thanks to a high impact factor – which measures the number of citations that stem from an article’s inclusion in the publication – the PSJ is considered to be one of the most influential journals in the realm of public administration.

The SCDP data, a republished, reviewed, and highlighted discourse on information from the group’s 2012 release, suggests that students from matched samples in MPCP and traditional MPS high schools in 2006 graduated at significantly different rates, with voucher students holding an advantage. Students in the MPCP sample graduated in four years at a 76 percent mark, which MPS students only earned their diplomas in 69 percent of the observed situations.

MPS gained ground when it came to five-year graduates, matriculating another 9.5 percent while MPCP schools only posted a 5.4 percent mark. This gap was even narrower when whittled down to students who were eighth graders in 2006-2007. In that group, 73.7 percent of MPCP students graduated on time, while 71.6 percent of observed students in MPS classrooms claimed the same honors. In all, 79 percent of voucher pupils and 76 percent of traditional public school students graduated from that 2006-2007 freshman class.

This advantage persisted when it came to attending a four-year college. MPCP students were “marginally more likely” to enroll in one of these institutions, according to the only statistically significant results revolving around higher education and these students. MPS students were more likely to enroll in a two-year school than their voucher-educated counterparts.

The study attempted to delve into the issues behind these dropouts as well by surveying the parents of students in both groups. That dug up plenty of information that goes beyond what the Department of Public Instruction collects on students in Wisconsin’s largest school district. These responses suggest that MPS students were more likely to be considered as “still in school” despite being more than a year past their expected graduation rate at a 22-18 percent basis.

Voucher students were more likely to leave their schools because they were either bored in the classroom or did not like their new schools. They were also more likely to drop out because they could not keep up with the coursework. Interestingly, students that did not graduate in voucher schools were more likely to cite expulsion or suspension as a cause than similar students in public schools, though this survey data is based on a small observational sample size.

Additionally, traditional MPS students in the sample group were almost twice as likely to drop out thanks to incarceration.

There are some problems with the findings of the study, however. MPCP enrollment dropped significantly between elementary school and high school thanks in part to a comparatively low number of private schools in the program that offered classes in grades 9-12. This may be tied to the program’s funding, which drew criticism for being unable to meet the demands of running a high school institution at just $6,442 per student. This issue may earn some relief in coming years, as Wisconsin legislation is set to increase the per-student funding for voucher high schools to $7,856 and tie all future public school funding raises to these school choice programs.

Another problem with the data is a high attrition rate for MPCP students. 56 percent of the pupils examined in the SCDP sample were no longer enrolled in a voucher school by the time that they reached 12th grade. The study shows that students that who remained in the voucher sector over a longer period of time performed better than those who stayed for less time, but this volatility may pose differences in student behavior that cannot be explained in this data.

The latest publication on graduation rates in Milwaukee’s voucher schools is a deeper look into the only value-added longitudinal study of student outcomes in America’s first modern school choice program. It furthers the SCDP’s claims that students in voucher schools are more likely to graduate than their peers, and uses subsample controls to account for outside influences like parental attainment and other factors. However, the research isn’t bulletproof due to educational regulations in Milwaukee and Wisconsin that would make a controlled, random selection-based field trial possible.

Even with those caveats, this data still provides a valuable look at the actual impact when a student in Milwaukee attends a private school through a state-funded voucher. These students are more likely to graduate, more likely to graduate on-time, and more likely to attend a four-year college afterwards. While the scope of this data is limited, future emphasis on student growth and better measurements for student achievement will help fuel the debate over just how effective vouchers are in Milwaukee for years to come.

The full report from the Policy Studies Journal can be seen here.