A new report on the nation’s largest voucher program demonstrates why Milwaukee voucher schools should adhere to the accountability and transparency laws followed by the public schools.
The 225-page report was a longitudinal study that compared samples of voucher and public school students using “value-added” achievement data in reading and math. The authors – many of whom have made a career out of researching voucher and charter schools – concluded “in some grades” students who attended voucher schools from 2006 to 2010 “exhibited greater growth in reading achievement than a group of matched Milwaukee Public Schools students.” The differences in math were not statistically significant.
While voucher proponents hailed the study, a closer look at report shows inconsistencies and raises many questions.
For example, a major conclusion [page 4, Report 36] asserts “enrolling in a private high school through MPCP [Milwaukee Parental Choice Program] increased the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college… by 4-7 percentage points.”
But on page 16, Report 30, the report states, "that the majority of students (approximately 75%) who were enrolled in 9th grade in MPCP were not enrolled there by the time they reached 12th grade. ... there is evidence that the students who leave MPCP for public schools are among the lowest performing private school students.”
In other words, three-quarters of voucher 9th graders have left by 12th grade, and the students who remain started out as higher achievers.
If we believe in educating all children, that shouldn’t be a source of pride. It also raises unexplored questions. Why do so many of the more-difficult-to-educate high schoolers leave the voucher schools? Are they “counseled out?” Expelled? Allowed to fall through the cracks? Is this a new form of creaming?
Given such internal inconsistencies in the report, it’s difficult to have confidence in the report’s conclusions.
The report was written by the School Choice Demonstration Project of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. The authors didn’t provide an advance copy of the report to Wisconsin’s State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers who is legally in charge of monitoring the program. As a result, the most widely read news story on the study that appeared on Monday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel didn’t quote him.
A few interesting facts came out in the reports.
• More than a third of the voucher students (36 percent) who were in the original student cohorts were missing and unable to be located by the fourth year of the study — literally, the researchers don’t know where they are because they are neither in a voucher school nor MPS. They may be in a charter school; they have moved out of the city. This calls into question any ability to make reliable conclusions.
• Only 68% of the teachers in the voucher schools have teaching licenses compared to 94% in the public schools.
• Based on the 2010-2011 WKCE test scores, the achievement gap between blacks and whites were significantly higher in the voucher schools than in MPS. (The report looked at the gap in reading and math in both 4th and 8th grade.)
One final note. None of the report’s data is disaggregated by school. In other words, there are some good voucher schools and some lousy voucher schools — but the report’s authors don’t let the public know which are which. The Milwaukee Public Schools, in contrast, releases data on a school-by-school basis, from test scores to mobility rates to attendance to special ed percentages.
The Arkansas report was funded by six foundations. Two of the most prominent are the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, well-known conservative foundations that believe in a universal voucher system as an alternative to public schools.
It was the fourth and final year of the longitudinal study. Efforts to increase voucher school accountability were blocked earlier this month when the Republican-dominated Legislature removed the voucher schools from a proposed statewide reporting system.