This report consists of four sections: (1) a description of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the data being collected; (2) a description of the choice families and students; (3) a five-year report on outcomes; and (4) a brief response to some of the criticisms of our previous evaluations. For the most part, this report updates the Fourth Year Report (December 1994) and should be read in conjunction with that report. Most of the findings are consistent with that very detailed report.
The Original Program. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, enacted in spring 1990, provides an opportunity for students meeting specific criteria to attend private, nonsectarian schools in Milwaukee. A payment from public funds equivalent to the MPS per-member state aid ($3,209 in 1994-95) is paid to the private schools in lieu of tuition and fees for the student. Students must come from families with incomes not exceeding 1.75 times the national poverty line. New choice students must not have been in private schools in the prior year or in public schools in districts other than MPS. The total number of choice students in any year was limited to 1% of the MPS membership in the first four years, but was increased to 1.5% beginning with the 1994-95 school year.
Schools initially had to limit choice students to 49% of their total enrollment. The legislature increased that to 65% beginning in 1994-95. Schools must also admit choice students without discrimination (as specified in s. 118.13, Wisconsin Stats.). Both the statute and administrative rules specify that pupils must be accepted on a random basis. This has been interpreted to mean that if a school was oversubscribed in a grade, random selection is required in that grade. In addition, in situations in which one child from a family was admitted to the program, a sibling is exempt from random selection even if random selection is required in the child's grade.
The New Program. The legislation was amended as part of the biennial state budget in June 1995. The principal changes were: (1) to allow religious schools to enter the program; (2) to allow students in grades kindergarten through three who were already attending private schools to be eligible for the program; (3) to eliminate all funding for data collection and evaluations (the Audit Bureau is required simply to file a report by the year 2000). Thus unless the legislation changes, data of the type collected for this and previous reports will not be available for the report to be submitted in the year 2000.
Choice Families and Students. Enrollment in the Choice Program has increased steadily but slowly, never reaching the maximum number allowed by the law. September enrollments have been 341, 521, 620, 742, and 830 from 1990-91 to 1994-95. The number of schools participating was: 7 in 1990-91, 6 in 1991-92, 11 in 1992-93, and 12 in the last two years. The leading reasons given for participating in the Choice Program was the perceived educational quality and the teaching approach and style in the private schools. That is followed by the disciplinary environment and the general atmosphere that parents associate with those schools. Frustration with prior public schools, although not unimportant, was not as important a reason for applying to the Choice Program as the attributes of the private schools.
The Choice Program was established, and the statute written, explicitly to provide an opportunity for relatively poor families to attend private schools. The program has clearly accomplished this goal. In terms of reported family income (Table 5a), the average income was $11,630 in the first five years. Incomes of 1994 choice families increased considerably to an average of $14,210. In racial terms, the program has had the greatest impact on African-American students, who comprised 74% of those applying to choice schools and 72% of those enrolled in the first five years of the program (Table 5b). Hispanics accounted for 19% of the choice applicants and 21% of those enrolled. In terms of marital status (Table 5c), choice families were much more likely to be headed by a non-married parent (75%) than the average MPS family (49%), and somewhat more likely than the low-income MPS parent (65%). The percentage was almost identical for the five separate years.A unique characteristic of choice parents was that despite their economic status, they reported higher education levels than either low-income or average MPS parents (Table 5e). Over half of the choice mothers reported some college education (56%), compared with 40% for the entire MPS sample and 30% of the low-income MPS respondents. Consistent with the education levels of parents, educational expectations for their children were also somewhat higher for choice parents than MPS and low-income MPS parents.
Finally, the experiences of choice families with prior MPS schools differed from non-choice, MPS families in three important ways: (1) students enrolling in the choice program were not achieving as well as the average MPS student; (2) choice parents were considerably less satisfied than other MPS parents; and (3) parental involvement in their prior schools and in educational activities at home was grearter for choice parents.
Outcomes. Outcomes after five years of the Choice Program remain mixed. Achievement change scores have varied considerably in the first five years of the program. Choice students' reading scores increased the first year, fell substantially in the second year, and have remained approximately the same in the next three years. Because the sample size was very small in the first year, the gain in reading was not statistically significant, but the decline in the second year was. In math, choice students were essentially the same in the first two years, recorded a significant increase in the third year, and then significantly declined this last year.
MPS students as a whole gained in reading in the first two years, with a relatively small gain in the first year being statistically significant. There were small and not significant declines in the last two years. Low-income MPS students followed approximately the same pattern, with none of the changes approaching significance. Math scores for MPS students were extremely varied. In the first year there were significant gains for both the total MPS group and the low-income subgroup. In the second year, the scores were essentially flat, but in the third year they declined significantly. Again, in the fourth year there was essentially no change in either the total MPS or low-income MPS groups.
Regression results, using a wide range of modeling approaches, including yearly models and a combined four-year model, generally indicated that choice and public school students were not much different. If there was a difference, MPS students did somewhat better in reading.
Parental attitudes toward choice schools, opinions of the Choice Program, and parental involvement were very positive over the first five years. Parents' attitudes toward choice schools and the education of their children were much more positive than their evaluations of their prior public schools. This shift occurred in every category (teachers, principals, instruction, discipline, etc.) for each of the five years. Similarly, parental involvement, which was more frequent than for the average MPS parent in prior schools, was even greater for most activities in the choice schools. In all years, parents expressed approval of the program and overwhelmingly believed the program should continue.
Attrition (not counting students in alternative choice schools) has been 44%, 32%, 28%, 23%, and 24% in the five years of the program. Estimates of attrition in MPS are , but in the last two years, attrition from the Choice Program was comparable to the range of mobility between schools in MPS. The reasons given for leaving included complaints about the Choice Program, especially application and fee problems, transportation difficulties and the limitation on religious instruction. They also included complaints about staff, general educational quality and the lack of specialized programs in the private schools.
Conclusions. We ended the Fourth Year Report by summarizing the
positive and negative consequences of the program. We then wrote:
Honorable people can disagree on the importance of each of these factors. One way to
think about it is whether the majority of the students and families involved are better
off because of this program. The answer of the parents involved, at least those who
respond to our surveys, was clearly yes. This is despite the fact that achievement, as
measured by standardized tests, was no different than the achievement of MPS students.
Obviously the attrition rate and the factors affecting attrition indicate that not all
students will succeed in these schools, but the majority remain and applaud the program.
Although achievement test results may be somewhat more bleak for choice in this analysis, the differences are not very large in terms of their impact, and the negative estimates are based on less stable models and smaller sample sizes. In addition test scores are only one indication of educational achievement. Thus we see no reason to change last year's conclusion.