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Vouchers Don’t Work: Evidence from Milwaukee

Now that 17 states have authorized vouchers to “save kids from failing schools,” it is time to review the evidence from Milwaukee, which has had vouchers for 22 years.

The “independent evaluator” of the Milwaukee and D.C. voucher programs is Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas. As we learned during school choice week earlier this year, Wolf is a strong supporter of school choice and he even wrote an editorial saying that his home state of Minnesota needs more school choice because it was in danger of falling behind Arkansas in doing so. How much more independent can an evaluator be? It is perhaps also noteworthy that the University of Arkansas is generously funded by Arkansas’s biggest philanthropy, the Walton Foundation, which pours millions every year into charters and vouchers and anything that has the possibility of undermining public schools.

Not even Wolf’s evaluations have shown any test score advantage for students who get vouchers, whether in DC or Milwaukee. This is the DC final-year evaluation. The main finding of the final-year evaluation: “There is no conclusive evidence that the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] affected student achievement.” Remember that boosters for vouchers seldom use the V word; they prefer the euphemism “opportunity scholarship.” The family gets an “opportunity” to take their child from a public school, where he or she has low test scores, to a private or religious school, where he or she will also have low test scores.

The Wolf evaluations claim an advantage for voucher students in graduation rates. But consider this. In Milwaukee, according to this analysis (see the summary here) of Wolf’s evaluation, 75% of the students who started in a voucher school left before graduation. So of the 25% who persisted, the graduation rate was higher than the Milwaukee public schools. But what about the 75% who dropped out and/or returned to MPS? No one knows.

The Milwaukee voucher schools have never outperformed the public schools on state tests: See here and here. The only dispute about test scores is whether voucher students are doing the same or worse than their peers in public schools.

Accountability? Read here about some very low-performing schools in Milwaukee that have never been held accountable. One of them opened in 2001. Over the past 11 years, it has collected $46.8 million but its students perform worse than those in the public schools. Some choice.

And anyone who looks at the NAEP reports on urban districts will see that after 22 years of vouchers, charters, and competition, Milwaukee is a poster child for the failure of vouchers, charters, and competition. The students in those schools all perform about the same level. No sector is better. The Milwaukee schools are ranked among the lowest performing of the urban districts tested by NAEP, ranking just above sad Detroit.

If choice was the answer, Milwaukee should be at the top of the nation’s urban districts. But it is near the bottom. Why? Because choice is not the answer. Addressing the causes of low test scores is the answer, and choice does not address the causes of low test scores: poverty and segregation.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...