Public Policy Forum Blog

Most new voucher users already were enrolled in private schools

The Forum's 14th annual census of schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) finds that voucher use by Milwaukee students grew 10% in 2011-12 to 23,198 voucher students, reversing last year’s enrollment decline. In addition, the data indicate that most voucher students are attending hyper-segregated schools that have low reading and math proficiency rates.

The dramatic increase in voucher use is likely due to changes to the program in the most recent state budget, which allowed schools outside Milwaukee to join MPCP and expanded eligibility to include families at higher income levels. As a result, more than 2,200 additional students are using vouchers worth $6,442 each, increasing the program’s cost by $14.2 million.

Most of the new voucher users appear to have already been enrolled in private school. In 56 schools, the number of new voucher users exceed the growth in total enrollment in the school, while in 13 schools voucher growth and enrollment growth were equal. Over the past 10 years, total enrollment in the schools participating in the program has grown by roughly 5,300 students, while the number of voucher users has increased over twice as much.

More students are eligible for vouchers because the income limits for voucher were raised to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level, which means that a family of four earning up to $67,050 per year is now eligible. The median household income in Milwaukee is $35,921 per year. Under the new rules, once a student qualifies for a voucher, he or she remains eligible for all subsequent years, even if the family’s income grows.

The report also includes an analysis of the 2010-2011 state standardized test results of the participating schools, finding that performance among the MPCP schools varies widely. There are a few patterns in the data, however. Reading proficiency rates are higher, on the whole, than math proficiency rates. In addition, schools with fewer voucher users and fewer minority students tend to produce higher proficiency in both reading and math, as do the Catholic and Lutheran schools.

The poor test scores are likely related to the socio-economic and racial demographic make-up of the schools, which mirror the Milwaukee Public Schools, in the aggregate. Nearly half of all MPCP schools have student bodies that are at least 90% minority and/or 90% low income; 65% of all voucher users attend one of these schools.

The report also includes updated data on enrollment trends, schools gaining and losing the most MPCP students, and the aggregate high school drop-out rate. Schools participating in Racine’s new Parental Private School Choice Program are included as well.

The full report and an interactive database of school information are available on the Forum's website.

Anneliese Dickman