Public Policy Forum Blog

Networked schools outperform independent schools in world's largest school choice market

Milwaukee's private school voucher program, now in its twelfth year, is dwarfed by the 30-year-old voucher program in Chile, where almost half of all students attend private voucher schools. The Chilean program is therefore of significant interest to school reformers and researchers looking to make voucher and charter schools a success in the US.

The most recent research, published by the Cato Institute, finds that when the Chilean public school test scores are compared with those of independent private schools and with those of private schools that are part of multi-school networks or franchises, the students in the franchised private schools perform best. (The independent, mom-and-pop private schools do about the same as the public schools.) In addition, the Chilean research indicates the more schools there are in the franchised networks, the better they outperform the others.

The researchers note that in Chile, "The private voucher school sector is essentially a cottage industry. More than 70 percent of private voucher schools are independent schools that do not belong to a franchise." The franchised schools are either owned by for-profit school management companies; affiliated with non-profit, secular organizations; or part of the Catholic or Protestant school systems.

Do these findings reflect what we know about Milwaukee's program? Its hard to say, since only one year of comparative data on student performance in voucher schools is available and it does not differentiate between the various types of private schools. However, those data do indicate considerable variability in performance across Milwaukee's voucher schools--some are producing high scoring students and some are no better than the worst public schools. It would be nice to know if all the high performing private schools had something in common besides the fact they participate in the voucher program.

We do know that Milwaukee is in two major ways very dissimilar to Chile, where most private voucher schools are of the independent, mom-and-pop variety. Here, most voucher schools would be considered franchises under Chilean standards, as they are affiliated with a religious organization such as the Catholic Archdiocese or a Lutheran Synod. In addition, for-profit school management networks do not have a significant presence in Milwaukee, although that sector appears likely to grow, particularly in the charter school market.

What might explain the Chilean experience? The researchers posit that the franchised schools may benefit from economies of scale in purchasing, fundraising, and administrative expenses, allowing their leadership to spend less time worrying about budgets and more time focused on instruction. In addition, they suggest that larger networks are better able to spread the costs of implementing new curricula or other reforms. However, the researchers caution there may be another explanation; perhaps the larger franchises are simply better at recruiting good schools to join their networks.

As for-profit school management companies look to expand into the Milwaukee education market, these findings and possibilities are worth bearing in mind. However, at least one education policy wonk cautions not to read too much into any research on the Chilean program, since their system arose not from "a richly democratic public debate, but emerged instead from the policies imposed by the military dictatorship that ... controlled the country ... under the rule of strongman Augusto Pinochet."

UPDATE: School Choice Wisconsin reported on private school networks in December 2010, noting that despite the lack of national charter school networks in the city, the school choice program had resulted in growing local networks.

Anneliese Dickman