Milwaukee shows school choice works

Patrick Gibbons

Milwaukee's school-choice program is the grandfather of voucher programs in the United States. As such it is often a target of left-wing anti-choice groups (primarily teacher unions) that work very hard to prove that school choice fails. Milwaukee's program is their favorite punching bag, and it is true that the simple fact that Milwaukee's program was first does not necessarily mean it is the best.

Actually, Milwaukee's program is very small in comparison to new programs begun in states such as Arizona and Florida. Nevertheless, research proves the Milwaukee program works, contrary to the spin-doctoring coming from the anti-choice groups.

A recent battery of empirical analyses of Milwaukee's voucher program found some interesting results, but newspapers focused on the wrong information. The unions seemingly argue plausibly that vouchers are expensive, harm public schools, decrease racial diversity and only really help the rich pay for private schools they can already afford.

Research, however, suggests the exact opposite. The School Choice Demonstration Project found the following:

1) The voucher program saves taxpayers money.
2) Vouchers increase racial integration.
3) Voucher students and students in the Milwaukee public schools both saw improvement, with no statistical difference between the two groups.
4) Milwaukee public schools that face voucher competition increase attention on their low-income and low-performing students. Thus, vouchers improve the quality of public education.

According to Greg Forester, "The students in the comparison group were selected by the researchers because they had similar demographics to those of the voucher students, similar test scores at the start of the study, and came from the same neighborhoods as the voucher students." Bear in mind, the voucher students are not likely to be wealthy, white suburbanites.  

Other studies even suggest that Milwaukee's voucher program may have led to increased graduation rates.

The empirical evidence of Milwaukee's voucher program suggests that the unions' favorite scare-charges are flat-out wrong. There is no white flight because of vouchers; instead there is increased racial diversity. Low-income students are the biggest beneficiaries of the program, because vouchers let them attend private schools that they otherwise could not (rich students have the opportunity either way). Vouchers are not more expensive, and public schools do not suffer because of the competition, but instead, improve. More importantly, student achievement increases across the board for both voucher students and students who remain in the public school system.

As the evidence mounts for greater parental choice in education, the question remains: Will Nevada's legislators lead the way for education reform or continue to fight a rear-guard action against it?