Public Policy Forum Blog

Enrollment and performance in choice schools

The Public Policy Forum’s annual Research Brief and school directory on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) - released this morning - finds that the program includes 110 schools and 25,820 students as of the 2013-2014 school year. Legislative changes adopted as part of the 2011-13 Wisconsin State Budget paved the way for growth in the use of vouchers and for new schools to begin accepting voucher students. For example, the income threshold for voucher eligibility was raised from 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to 300%. Because the FPL for a family of four in 2013 was $23,500, a family of four residing in Milwaukee could earn up to $70,500 and be voucher-eligible. Given these new limits, we estimate nearly 60% of families in the City of Milwaukee were eligible in fall 2013.

The 2011-2013 State Budget also removed the enrollment cap (which had been set at 22,500 students in 2005), and schools outside the City of Milwaukee became eligible to participate in the MPCP. Sixteen schools outside the city of Milwaukee (see map) have joined the roster of voucher schools since then, enrolling 755 voucher students (3% of total MPCP enrollment) in 2013-2014.These new schools include two boarding schools outside the Milwaukee metro area (Wisconsin Academy and Starr Academy). The largest voucher school this year, as it has been in the past, is St. Anthony School, now with nearly 2,000 choice pupils.

Voucher students are likely to find themselves in schools with other voucher students, rather than attending schools with a mix of voucher and non-voucher pupils. In 2013-14, 75% of choice pupils attended a private (voucher) school where 80% or more of the school’s total enrollment was made up of voucher pupils.

There is also evidence to suggest that there is high student turnover among choice schools, as evidenced by the degree to which students enter and leave choice schools. In the school year 2013-2014, choice enrollment grew in some schools (2,575 total students) but declined in others (1,762 students), resulting in a net change of 813 students.

This year’s brief also is able to report on three years’ worth of test scores for voucher students as it reports on the latest available three years of WKCE testing. We find that schools with a higher concentration of voucher pupils (as a percentage of total student enrollment) report the lowest scores. In fact, our analysis suggests that for every 1% rise in voucher student concentration, scores drop by .8% in reading and by .7% in math.

These findings suggest the need for further analysis on a number of important questions. Why are academic achievement scores lagging particularly in schools where choice pupils make up the bulk of the student body? Why is turnover within the system so high? And finally, are the factors that enable some MPCP schools to achieve greater academic performance despite high concentrations of choice students, while others are not? 

Virginia Carlson