Milwaukee Vouchers: 18% Graduation Edge Over Public Schools



By 02/02/2010

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Two years ago, presidential aspirant Barack Obama said during a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview:  “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Let’s see if the experiment works.’  And if it does, whatever my preconception, you do what’s best for kids.”

As President, his acquiescence to the death of the D.C. Scholarship Program — despite well-documented, positive findings from Patrick Wolf’s team — is a reminder that actions speak louder than words.

So perhaps it’s naïve to put too much stock in these words from last week’s State of the Union address:  “The idea here is simple. Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform that raises student achievement.”

Yet, hope springs eternal.  As with other policies where the President now is reconsidering his approach, perhaps he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will take a second look at the power of parent choice.

New data from Milwaukee gives them a chance to do that.  It provides yet another piece of evidence suggesting that urban students benefit when afforded more educational options.  It comes from University of Minnesota Sociology Professor John Robert Warren, an acknowledged national expert on high school graduation rates.

After studying six years of data from Milwaukee, Warren concludes, in a new study reported here, “Students in the Milwaukee choice program are more likely to graduate from high school than” students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).   This despite the fact that eligibility for Milwaukee vouchers is limited to students from low-income families while “students in MPS schools come from a much broader range of social and economic backgrounds.”

Professor Warren’s report, available here, says that Milwaukee students using vouchers were 18 per cent more likely to graduate than MPS students.  He estimates that 3,352 additional Milwaukee students would have received diplomas between 2003 and 2008 if public school graduation rates had matched those of low-income students using educational vouchers.

As for causation, Warren notes that a separate longitudinal evaluation of the Milwaukee program, being directed by Pat Wolf, will address that issue.