WILL Blog | NPR Reporting on Milwaukee School Choice Program is wrong, misinformed

 In Education Reform, ER Commentary

NPR reporter Claudio Sanchez’s recent story on the Milwaukee voucher program, titled “Lessons on Race and Vouchers from Milwaukee,” made the following claim:

“Over the years though, most voucher recipients have performed no better academically than their public school peers. In some cases they’ve done worse.” 

Sanchez makes a bold assertion. One that a reader would expect would cite to some authority, study, or news article given the long history and attention given to the Milwaukee school choice program. Unfortunately, the reader can’t know what exactly Sanchez is referring to because there is no citation or hyperlink.  His assertion is treated as a self-evident truth.

Sanchez is wrong and his reporting is either sloppy or misinformed.

Given the longevity of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), a number of serious, gold-standard academic studies have addressed the question of academic performance.  Rather than “the same or worse” outcomes reported by Sanchez, these studies tend to show that students in the MPCP outperform their peers at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

Form 2006-2012, the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) followed students of similar demographic and socio-economic background in the MPCP and MPS system over several years and observed their long-term outcomes.  This is considered the best approach short of a true experiment, by academic standards.  Findings include (links included!!):

Because there is a great deal of movement between students attending MPS and voucher schools, the best studies are longitudinal, i.e., studies that compare the performance of groups of like students over time. The impact of a school is best determined by whether a student’s performance improves as a result of attending the school.  It is puzzling why Sanchez omitted this.

While the School Choice Demonstration Project provides the most accurate picture of what is happening in Milwaukee, a study Dr. Flanders published this year takes advantage of newly released demographic data to make the best comparisons possible among students across Milwaukee’s sectors with publically available data.  This study showed the following:

  • MPCP students had 5% higher proficiency in English/Language Arts than MPS students,
  • MPCP students had 4% higher proficiency in Mathematics, and
  • MPCP students scored about 2.8 points higher on the ACT.

Forward Exam Performance by Sector, Milwaukee 2016

Such comparisons are far more accurate than normal “snapshots” because they control for the socioeconomic status and race of children in each school.  Essentially it levels the playing field.  This takes into account how some MPS schools have selective admissions policies and that all children in the MPCP are less than 300% of federal poverty limit while some children at MPS (which has no income limit) are not.  Any serious comparison will take these factors into account.  It is unclear whether Sanchez’s assertion does this (it almost surely does not).

Test scores are, of course, not the only way to determine the value of a school or the voucher program. The MPCP is popular. The parents of 28,000 students in Milwaukee have made the choice to send their child to a private voucher school. And recent studies have shown that students in the MPCP are less likely to become involved in criminal activity.  Combined with the increased graduation rate shown in SCDP research, these benefits represent an economic boon to the city and state of nearly $500 million dollars.

There is a great deal of academic research showing how school choice is working in Milwaukee.  In fact, there is no serious (longitudinal) study that shows otherwise.

NPR needs to correct the record and provide their readers with a better understanding of the research on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

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