School choice proponents argue that private vouchers give students in troubled school districts the opportunity for a better education. But the numbers don’t always back them up.
In March, the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project released a report on Milwaukee’s school choice program. It reached several favorable conclusions — that the program saves tax dollars, increases the likelihood that program participants will graduate from high school and go on to college, and has led to MPS students “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.”
A review of this study published by the National Education Policy Center, a peer-review group at the University of Colorado, called it “an overly simplistic evaluation” that overlooked much of the available research.
One finding in the Arkansas study wasn’t good news for school choice advocates: There was no significant difference in the performance of select choice students and similar Milwaukee public school students in the 2009-10 school year. That finding was affirmed by a report released in August by Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.
And Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data based on the test scores of all students show that voucher students in Milwaukee’s choice program actually performed worse on standardized tests in fall 2010 than students in Milwaukee public schools. That was even true among students categorized as “economically disadvantaged.”
Across all grades, 43.9 percent of these economically disadvantaged students scored proficient in mathematics, compared to 34.4 percent for school choice participants. The test scores for reading were also lower for choice participants, but less dramatically so.