Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Pearl: Growth in school choice program not what it seems

Alan Borsuk's article in today's Journal Sentinel could lead one to believe that growth in the voucher program necessarily comes at the expense of MPS enrollment. However, our research shows the recent growth in voucher use comes mostly from existing private school students, not public school students switching to private schools. The lifting of the program's enrollment cap was accompanied by some changes in eligibility, which made more private school students able to take advantage of the publicly-funded voucher program.

When we analyzed the voucher use and enrollment data last year as part of our annual census of choice schools, we found that while voucher use in private schools had grown by 2,516 students, enrollment had grown by only 620 students. For example, the Lutheran schools as a whole had 467 more voucher users, but total enrollment grew by only 1 student. The only Jewish school in the program actually had 2 fewer students, but 31 more voucher users.

These findings help explain why, as Borsuk's article states, "[MPS] test scores and other indicators continue to lag behind the state and have not changed dramatically." The program is not exerting competitive pressure on MPS. In 2006, 80% of voucher users were enrolled in religious schools. Are these schools truly competitors with MPS? The data indicate that parents are making choices based on religion, not on the availability of a voucher. From our report:

How can MPS be expected to compete with a program consisting mainly of religious schools that attract students who most likely would never have been public school students?

Growth in voucher use is certainly growth in publicly-funded education, as the article explains. Unfortunately, simply making the public education pie bigger doesn't seem to be encouraging MPS to get better.

Author: 
Anneliese Dickman