Correcting Misinformation on School Choice
In an opinion piece in the Nonprofit Quarterly with the title “What Wisconsin and Arizona Should Teach Us About School Vouchers,” Martin Levine recycles several claims commonly trumpeted by school choice opponents – but without any evidence or appropriate context. Mr. Levine ignores the ample evidence available that school choice provides benefits for children. This does a disservice to the thousands of children and families who have benefited from school choice over the last couple decades.
Let’s first begin with Mr. Levine’s claim of “little evidence of improved educational outcomes from those students who these programs have assisted.” Though a frequent talking point by opponents of vouchers, the academic record strongly suggests otherwise. Recent work by a Harvard economist demonstrates that giving these families better educational options can help improve social mobility for children – not something trivial for a struggling and under-resourced parent. Researchers at Harvard and the Brookings Institution studied a private voucher program in New York City and found that “minority students who received a school voucher to attend private elementary schools in 1997 were, as of 2013, 10 percent more likely to enroll in college and 35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.”
The School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas conducted a 5-year study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest school voucher program in the nation. Widely recognized as the most thorough and rigorous study on this program, the evaluation team found that “achievement growth of [voucher] students compared to [public school] students is higher in reading but similar in math,” “[public school] students themselves are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program,” and a voucher “increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college, and persisting in college.”
Finally, 13 studies based on the strongest of research methods – random assignment – have been conducted on voucher programs. All but one concluded that school voucher programs resulted in academic benefits for all students or a particular group of students. Not one found that school choice harms students.
Mr. Levine also states, “We are learning that creating an educational marketplace is not cheap.” He is right – any enterprise endeavoring to provide a quality education is costly. Although a marketplace is not cheap, it is substantially cheaper than our current public educational monopoly. In Wisconsin, the voucher amount is set at 58% of the cost to educate a child in a public school.  As it turns out, voucher programs currently in place save taxpayer money – over $1.7 billion according to one report.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that Wisconsin will spend $258 million on their school voucher programs in 2016-17. Without context, this figure may seem high, perhaps outrageous to some. However, according to 2015 Wisconsin Act 55, the total General Purpose Revenue (GPR) allocated to educational programming will be $5.86 billion in 2016-17. Thus, total spending on Wisconsin’s school voucher programs will make up only 4.4% of GPR.
On top of this, when students use a voucher to attend a private school, districts are still allowed to pocket a sizable check because they can continue to count outgoing students for general state aid and revenue limit purposes – even though the district is no longer educating those children. To my knowledge, K-12 public education is the only enterprise in our society that operates like this. For comparison, we certainly do not see colleges or universities receive “bonuses” when their students transfer to another institution.
School choice opponents’ worries, though sensible, turn out to be unfounded and unsupported by the academic record and by how the funding actually works.
— Martin Lueken
Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D., is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
 This is based on computing an average cost of the voucher, weighted by MPCP enrollment by grade. The weighted value of the voucher is $7,335. The 2013-14 state average comparative cost per pupil is $12,546 (based on WI DPI comparative cost data).