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Milwaukee vouchers boost students’ chance of graduating, enrolling in college, researchers find

March 30, 2011

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Arkansas have found that a school voucher program in Milwaukee increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school and enrolling in college.

A team co-led by John Witte, professor in UW–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, and Patrick J. Wolf, University of Arkansas professor of education reform, reported the findings from the fourth year of an evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research organization based in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was the first urban school voucher program of its kind when it started in 1990. The program enrolled 20,899 students in 2009-10 at 111 private schools through the use of vouchers.

“At the start of our evaluation in 2006, we carefully matched the entire group of 801 ninth-grade students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program with a similar group of 801 ninth-graders in Milwaukee Public Schools,” Witte says. “Four years later, the students in the voucher program were more likely to have graduated from high school and enroll in a four-year college than were their public school counterparts. Our estimates of the higher rates of college enrollment for the students in the voucher program ranged from 5 to 7 percentage points and were statistically significant in most of the comparisons.”

Other findings announced included:

  • The voucher program remains popular among Milwaukee families, as evidenced by consistent and at times dramatic growth in enrollment during the past 12 years.
  • The voucher program saves the government money — nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011 — although not all types of Wisconsin taxpayers benefit from the savings.
  • Both the voucher program and the Milwaukee Public Schools have succeeded in denying public funds to, or closing, a substantial number of low-performing schools during the past four years.
  • Students in the voucher program appear to be performing at lower levels than students in the younger grades in Milwaukee Public Schools but somewhat higher levels than students in the older grades in Milwaukee Public Schools. When similar students in both groups are tracked carefully over time, however, their rates of achievement growth are statistically similar after three years.
  • Independent public charter schools are generating significantly higher rates of achievement growth for their students compared to similar students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

The full report can be read at