The first research since the mid-1990s comparing the academic progress of students in Milwaukee's precedent-setting private school voucher program with students in Milwaukee Public Schools shows no major differences in success between the two groups.When I worked in Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle's Office, we worked hard to bring greater accountability to the $129 million taxpayer-funded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The 2006 compromise ("Governor and Speaker Gard Announce Deal on School Choice, Accountability, and Small Class Size Funding") -- made necessary because of the then-Republican Assembly Speaker (who had close ties to local and national voucher school lobbyists) -- wasn't perfect or as strong it might otherwise have been, but it was a step forward.
Summarizing a comparison of how matched groups of voucher and MPS students did across two years of tests, the researchers wrote:
"The primary finding in all of these comparisons is that there is no overall statistically significant difference between MPCP (voucher) and MPS student achievement growth in either math or reading one year after they were carefully matched to each other."
The push for greater accountability was precipitated over concerns about student learning (such as reported by Rethinking Schools in 2005) and widespread fraud and abuse (such as this and this) that seemed to be rampant within many start-up schools financed solely by the public subsidies available through the voucher program. This national evaluation -- along with stronger financial reporting requirements, independent accreditation, and participation in standardized testing -- was one piece of that accountability rubric passed into law. (Here is a link to a summary of the Act (2005 Wisconsin Act 125).
Other elements of accountability discussed back in 2005 and 2006, and still under discussion within the Wisconsin education policy community, include certification of educators in the voucher schools and a reporting of school-by-school assessment results. The argument for teacher certification was made to ensure a minimum standard of teacher quality based on evidence that teachers in voucher schools were not required to have graduated from college. In addition, it was felt that in order for parents to make informed choices for their kids academic information on the voucher schools needed to be available the same way it is for schools within Milwaukee's public system.
After all, taxpayer money -- from the state of Wisonsin and from the city of Milwaukee -- finances this program. And these kids deserve the best education possible. Certainly, they deserve some assurance of basic quality.
For readers who can't get enough of this issue, check out these links for further background about this issue:
Education Optimists: "School Vouchers Are No Silver Bullet"
Eduwonk: "Vouching Toward Gomorrah"
Quick & The Ed: "I Should Know Better..."
Fordham Institute: What's The Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs
David Figlio & Cecelia Rouse: Do Accountability and Voucher Threats Improve Low-Performing Schools?