School Choice and Graduation Rates
A newly released report evaluating the impact of Milwaukee’s voucher program (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) provides evidence that the program has improved student outcomes. The study notes that prior evaluations have demonstrated positive effects of the voucher program on test scores:
Do students benefit by using the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) to attend a private school instead of a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) school? In addressing that question, most prior evaluations focus on whether students in the MPCP score better on tests of academic achievement than students in MPS schools. As reviewed in our 2007 report, two studies based on randomized trials each demonstrated significantly higher mathematics test scores for MPCP students as compared to MPS students four years after enrolling in the program; one study also showed significantly higher reading test scores.
In contrast, the focus of the present study was to investigate the effect of the voucher program on graduation rates:
Overall, had MPS graduation rates equaled those for MPCP students in the classes of 2003 through 2009, the number of MPS graduates would have been about 18 percent higher. That higher rate would have resulted in 3,939 more MPS graduates during the 2003-2009 years. A recent analysis of the economic impact of high school dropouts suggests that the annual impact from an additional 3,939 MPS graduates would include an additional $24.9 million in personal income and about $4.2 million in extra tax revenue.
An important consideration to bear in mind when reviewing education research is that educational goals are varied, and a wide variety of educational outcomes can be implicated by policy changes. As such, even if a policy change is demonstrated to have a negligent impact on an important student outcome such as test scores, that policy may still positively impact other desirable student outcomes. In the case of the voucher program in Milwaukee, it appears that several student outcomes are positively implicated by school choice. In other regions of the country, school choice programs have had a much less significant impact on test scores. It is important that researchers and the general public then probe the effects of such programs on other desirable outcomes, as well, before a summary judgment of the policy is made.