Study: Students in school choice outperform peers

Students in Milwaukee’s school voucher program are outperforming public school students in reading and graduation rates, according to a study by the School Choice Administration Project at the University of Arkansas.

The 2010-2011 school year was the fifth year of the study, which tested the same sample students during that time frame. John Witte, one of the researchers on the study and a political science and public affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained the study’s methods.

“We picked the baseline group in 2006 and followed the students for five years thereafter,” Witte said. “We did a random sample of voucher students, then picked a control group in the Milwaukee Public Schools by matching (the voucher students) to (public school students) by similar neighborhoods and baseline test scores in 2006, and then took into account their gender and race, things that cannot be measured very well.”

The evaluation concluded that when these students were compared, the growth of voucher students was higher than that of public school students in reading and math.

The report also showed that students in the voucher program graduate high school and attend four-year colleges at higher rates.

“(The report showed) higher reading scores, graduation rates and enrollment in four year schools, and the students are also staying in college, which is really important,” said Nycole Stawinoga, a  research associate at School Choice Wisconsin.  “Studies show that (students who remain in college) make more money, live longer and have less of a chance of being incarcerated.”

With regard to the growth, Witte noted that the voucher students were behind the public school students when the study first began five years ago.

“There is no question that this program has been successful for families that cannot afford private school,” Witte said. “The test results are either positive in favor of the voucher students or the same, but (the voucher students) started out behind the Milwaukee Public School kids.”

But Rebecca Bardwell, an associate professor of counselor education and counseling psychology at Marquette, pointed out that there are differences between voucher schools and public schools that may benefit the former statistically.

“I think there are more selective students in the voucher program,” Bardwell said. “The voucher schools don’t have to take students with special needs, public schools do.”

The report found that somewhere between 7.5 percent and 14.6 percent of voucher students have a disability.

Bardwell said she is not sure if the report is a definite sign of success.

“I don’t know that (this report) validates the voucher program,” Bardwell said. “I don’t see much of a difference between voucher and public schools. They are both receiving state money.”

Rob Guilbert, vice president of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, believes studies like this can be a learning experience.

“There are certain strengths in (the voucher program) and we need to know what is sustainable in it,” Guilbert said. “You need to look at academics, cost and social or parent involvement.”

An additional 2,202 students are enrolled in the voucher program for the 2011-2012 school year, a 10 percent increase from the 2010-2011 year. Each voucher costs $6,442.