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Non-Effects of Milwaukee Vouchers: What's It Mean?

The University of Arkansas School of Education, home to my good friends Patrick Wolf and Jay Greene, yesterday released new research showing that students in Milwaukee's two-decade old voucher program (the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) "scored at similar levels as their peers not participating in the school choice program."

Wolf, who has led this effort as well as the federally-endorsed evaluation of the DC voucher program, summarized, "Voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers." Translation: when it comes to test scores, students with vouchers are performing no differently than other kids. (It is worth noting that MPCP students are being educated more cheaply than are district school students).

What to make of the results? First off, 20 years in, it's hard to argue that the nation's biggest and most established voucher experiment has "worked" if the measure is whether vouchers lead to higher reading and math scores. Happily, that's never been my preferred metric for structural reforms--both because I think it's the wrong way to study them (see "Science and Nonscience") but, more importantly, because choice-based reform shouldn't be understood as that kind of intervention. Rather, choice-based reform should be embraced as an opportunity for educators to create more focused and effective schools and for reformers to solve problems in smarter ways. Whether any of that pays off is much more a question of quality control, support, talent, investment, infrastructure, and the rest than it is of whether or not a choice program is in place.

Second, congrats to Wolf and his team for reporting this straight and for not trying to spin the results. There's way too little of that, for my taste. And I was happy to see Wolf, who generally favors school vouchers (as do I), not engaging in tortured efforts to make the data tell a happy tale. Advocating for vouchers (or charters or merit pay) by struggling to extract some favorable coefficients from math and reading scores has always been a problematic way to argue the need to fundamentally rethink the design of schooling.

Third, the wrong response to the findings is to conclude that "school choice doesn't work." As I've noted, overhyping by choice enthusiasts has invited just such disenchantment by encouraging a simple faith that choice would be self-executing. The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern, who a couple years ago more or less renounced his once-avid support for school choice, drolly opined, "So after 20 years of the most comprehensive voucher program in the country, the voucher students 'are achieving on the same level' as their peers in the Milwaukee public schools. Left unsaid is that Milwaukee black students in the public schools have the lowest reading scores of any cohort of black students in the country."

Finally, I think the right reaction is to recognize that choice enthusiasts have been overselling the miracle, restorative powers of choice for years. Choice can make it easier for quality schools to emerge, for schools to forge coherent and disciplined cultures, and for reformers to break out of the contractual and cultural handcuffs implicit in so many districts. For too long, reformers underinvested in recruiting high-quality operators, providing support to tackle legal and facilities issues, broadening the pool of talented educators and leaders, incubating promising ventures, encouraging successful private schools to expand, or generally building an ecosystem that would fuel excellence in the new sector. One only need look to New Schools for New Orleans or Indianapolis's The Mind Trust to see other ways to approach this challenge. Anyway, this is all stuff I address at much greater length in Education Unbound, but it's especially relevant when making sense of Milwaukee's bleaker-than-promised results.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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