Public Policy Forum Blog

Cost and performance in choice schools

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), now in its 23rd year, includes 113 private schools and nearly 25,000 students, making it larger than all but two school districts in the state.  The results of our 15th annual census of MPCP schools reveal MPCP schools have much more in common with Wisconsin’s large urban districts than is generally acknowledged, including the racial diversity of the student body, the incidence of poverty among the students, student performance on state standardized exams, and general state support per pupil.  Where MPCP differs significantly, however, is the rapid rate of enrollment growth it is experiencing, its much lower per-pupil costs, and the lack of performance data related to student achievement. 

For most of the program’s history, little has been known about the performance of the participating students.  With two years of MPCP student proficiency rates, as measured by state standardized exams, slightly below proficiency rates of students in MPS, there now is a somewhat better sense of student performance.  The portion of students reflected by the reported scores is less than half of all voucher users, however, and other MPCP performance measures, such as attendance and graduation rates, remain unknown.

Given that uncertainty and the low reading and math proficiency rates, and coupling them with high rates of poverty among MPCP schools and the racial hyper-segregation of these schools, the recent trend in the value of the voucher is troubling.  While the number of low-income students using vouchers has increased 88% over the past 10 years, the value of the voucher itself has increased just 10% and has failed to keep pace with inflation. 

School choice advocates have long argued that the voucher program saves taxpayers money, as the voucher amount is less than the MPS cost per pupil.  Yet, given what is now known about MPCP student characteristics and outcomes, should policymakers reconsider the amount and pace of growth of the tuition voucher?  

The spending data reveal that MPCP schools spend much less than public schools with comparable student bodies.  The private schools keep costs down, most obviously, by avoiding the steep legacy costs many school districts incur for retiree pensions and health care.  In addition, MPCP schools may opt to control costs by not providing expensive instructional offerings, such as teacher specialists (art, music, etc.), or by offering only certain grade levels.  The survey results indeed indicate few art, music, library, physical education, or technology specialist teachers work in MPCP schools. The low voucher value also likely contributes to the relatively few high schools and high school students participating in the program, and the fact that few of these students have access to more costly curricular programs such as Advanced Placement.    

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has operated for more than two decades with little information about student achievement.  With new data showing two years of lackluster proficiency rates among voucher students, and a seeming inability of many schools to invest in expensive programming, now may be the time for better understanding of the interplay between the program’s cost and performance.  

Anneliese Dickman