Article published in The Wisconsin State Journal
Some opponents of market-based education reforms are pointing to an October study as they attempt to downplay the benefits of parental choice in education, specifically Milwaukee’s 18-year-old voucher program.
The report, issued by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, purports to show that parental involvement in the Milwaukee program has drastically declined, particularly as students get older. Overall, the report claims that only 10 percent of parents with children in the Milwaukee Public Schools system make educational choices using a process that factors in academic performance data from at least two schools.
The report’s author claims that healthy levels of parental involvement are essential to the success of a school choice program like Milwaukee’s.
“Given this number,” author David Dodenhoff writes, “it seems unlikely that MPS schools are feeling the pressure of a genuine educational marketplace.”
But careful scrutiny — and common sense — reveal that it’s the study that’s problematic, not the nation’s longest-running school choice program. The study’s research design and methodology are so fundamentally flawed that its findings are meaningless. And that’s a shame, because the Milwaukee program is an excellent example for other school districts looking for ways to improve.
First of all, it’s not a study of Milwaukee families. The report does not rely on data from the Milwaukee Public Schools or interviews or surveys of Milwaukee parents.
Instead, the numbers are from national data sets used by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 Parent and Family Involvement in Education survey. Author Dodenhoff applies these national data to Milwaukee parents, simply assuming that they use the same methods of choosing their children’s schools in the same percentages as parents nationally.
Dodenhoff insists that his results track with what people involved in Milwaukee schools said where there best estimates of parental involvement.
But anecdotes and hearsay do not form a reliable foundation for a scholarly study.
In the words of Brown University’s noted education professor Martin West, “The study’s fundamental problem is very simple: The author uses national data to draw conclusions about behavior in Milwaukee, when, of course, Milwaukee’s education system is unique in many ways. ”
The study’s second major methodological flaw is that it focuses only on families who choose public schools. It does not consider the families who apply their vouchers to private schools or to independent charter schools.
But private schools are the first choice of most parents. The 2003 Phi Delta Kappa annual opinion survey on education found that 62 percent of Americans would choose private schools for their kids if they received vouchers for full tuition. If offered vouchers for only half the tuition, 51 percent would still select private schools.
This methodological sloppiness may help explain why the report’s results fly in the face of most other national and Milwaukee-focused studies of the benefits of school choice.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that the Milwaukee voucher program has substantial benefits for participants — and even for public school students who do not use vouchers.
Milwaukee students who receive vouchers achieve much higher high school graduation rates than public school students overall, according to a 2004 study by Jay Greene, one of the nation ‘s leading education policy researchers.
The average test performance of black students rose 3.3 National Percentile Ranking points after one year in the Milwaukee voucher program and 6.3 points after two years, according to Greene and Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson.
Even students who remain in public schools benefit from the competition created by choice programs. During 1997 to 2004, Milwaukee public school students increased their scores in 12 of the 15 categories on Wisconsin’s standardized tests, notes the American Legislative Exchange Council.
According to Hoover Institution researcher Caroline Hoxby, student performance improved faster at Milwaukee public elementary schools where vouchers were available to many students than at schools where they were available to only a few. For example, during 1999-2003, the public schools that faced the most competition from vouchers saw their students ‘ math scores skyrocket by 7.1 percentile points.
The vast majority of scholarly research on the effects of vouchers backs up common sense. Giving parents choices in their children’s schooling improves educational achievement and family satisfaction.
The more school districts across the country that follow Milwaukee’s innovative example, the better off America’s students will be.
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