Public Policy Forum Blog

School Choice: Is Milwaukee still state-of-the-art?

Milwaukee has long been called "ground zero" of education reform in America, due mostly to our nearly two-decade-long "experiment" with publicly-funded private school vouchers. Now New Orleans, LA (NOLA) threatens to revoke our title as the epicenter of school choice by heeding the lessons learned here in Milwaukee and advancing the policy design with its new voucher program.

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is set to sign the nation's fifth voucher program into law, allowing impoverished students in under-performing New Orleans public schools to leave for other options. The NOLA program's legislation looks designed to avoid many of the failings of Milwaukee's program: it borrows certain elements of our program, building on Milwaukee's strengths, yet limits our deficiencies.

For example, NOLA has learned from us that supply and demand are insufficient accountability mechanisms. Voucher recipients in New Orleans will be required to take the regular state standardized tests, including the graduation exit exam, and school level testing data will be reported to the public annually. In addition, private schools in Louisiana are overseen by an advisory committee of school representatives who advise the state school board on standards. The board approves new private schools and discontinues approval if a private school is not maintaining its standards. By having access to school performance data, parents will be able to make better informed decisions. They will also be able to rely on the added level of accountability provided by the state school board and its advisory committee.

Anticipating that a program designed to allow parents to "vote with their feet" will find parents actually doing so, the New Orleans program provides that students who find themselves in unacceptable choice schools have priority in transferring to another participating school. This not only helps parents feel comfortable about taking the risk to change schools, it also avoids the problems that have been experienced in Milwaukee when a school fails mid-year and leaves students with no other options.

Further accountability comes in the form of a probationary period for those schools failing to comply with the statutory provisions requiring a healthy audit. During the one-year probation, the school will not be permitted to enroll additional voucher students. If the school has not come into compliance by the end of the probationary period, it will no longer be eligible to participate in the program. This requirement protects students and taxpayers alike and avoids situations like those in Milwaukee where a school finds itself closing its doors due to unexpected financial problems.

New Orleans' new program also reflects the lessons that parents cannot be empowered without information and shopping for schools is difficult. In addition to testing students and reporting the results, choice schools in New Orleans will be required to inform each family about all school rules and policies, including academic and disciplinary policies, prior to their enrollment. Schooling information will be obtained not only from the schools, but also from the state education department, which determine voucher eligibility as a first step. Once a student has the voucher in hand, he or she can choose from among the participating schools, which will hold a simultaneous enrollment period.

Parents who are shopping for schools in Milwaukee have to call or visit schools individually to gather any schooling information, limiting the number of schools in competition for that student. In New Orleans, schools will compete amongst themselves for the limited pool of voucher recipients during the mutual enrollment period. In this way, the NOLA program encourages schools to market themselves directly to these parents, likely giving New Orleans parents opportunity to obtain more complete information than Milwaukee parents.

Finally, unlike Milwaukee, the NOLA program is designed to ensure public schools compete for students based on school performance. It does this in two ways. First, it grants eligibility only to those students enrolled in an under-performing public school (and new Kindergarten students). Current private school students cannot receive vouchers. Secondly, it provides additional money on top of the voucher amount for special needs students. Thus, the playing field is more level as the private schools' disincentive to accept special needs students is reduced, while the focus of the parents' choice is squarely on the relative performance of the schools. In Milwaukee, parents cannot consider school performance, as no such data on individual private schools are available. Furthermore, one of the biggest complaints about Milwaukee's program, from both sides of the issue, has been that the voucher amount does not cover the entire cost of educating special needs students.

While the New Orleans' program looks promising from a policy design point of view, it is obviously too early to tell whether implementation will be successful. If it is, Milwaukee's 18-year-old program just may have been replaced by an updated model.

Anneliese Dickman