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2nd Quarter, Article 5
July 2014

Number of voucher schools relatively unchanged since 2003 while enrollment has doubled

The Forum's annual Research Brief and school directory on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) - released in early April - finds that the program includes 110 schools today, having experienced both exits and entrants from its roster of 111 schools in the past decade. In addition, we find that fall 2013 voucher enrollment was 25,820 students, about double the 13,268 enrolled in 2003-2004. Thus, while the number of voucher schools is relatively unchanged, the number of voucher students has grown at an annual rate of 6.9% each year over the decade, including a 4% bump from the 2012-13 to the 2013-14 school year.


As reported in previous Forum MPCP briefs, several legislative changes adopted as part of the 2011-13 Wisconsin State Budget paved the way for growth in the use of vouchers and for new schools to begin accepting voucher students. For example, the income threshold for voucher eligibility was raised from 150% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to 300%. Because the FPL for a family of four in 2013 was $23,500, a family of four earning up to $70,500 met the threshold, making nearly 60% of families in the City of Milwaukee eligible for a voucher in 2013. In addition, the voucher participation cap set at 22,500 students in 2005 was removed, and schools outside the City of Milwaukee were allowed to participate in the MPCP.


While these factors helped to reverse a decline in MPCP pupils that had occurred between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, they have not yet resulted in growth in the number of schools participating in the program. Consequently, the average number of voucher students in each participating school has risen from 109 in 2003-2004 to 235 in 2013-2014. Whether this leveling of the number of participating schools signals that a "natural limit" has been reached, or is a temporary lull, remains to be seen.


Other key findings from our MPCP Research Brief:

  • Voucher students are likely to find themselves in schools with other voucher students, rather than attending schools with a mix of voucher and non-voucher pupils. In 2013-14, 75% of choice pupils attended a private (voucher) school where 80% or more of the school's total enrollment was made up of voucher pupils. 
  • There is evidence to suggest that there is high student turnover among choice schools, as evidenced by the degree to which students enter and leave choice schools. In the 2013-14 school year, choice enrollment grew in some schools (2,575 total students) but declined in others (1,762 students), resulting in a net change of 813 students. 
  • This year's brief also is able to report on three years' worth of test scores for voucher students as it reports on the latest available three years of WKCE testing. We find that schools with a higher concentration of voucher pupils (as a percentage of total student enrollment) report the lowest scores. In fact, our analysis suggests that for every 1% rise in voucher student concentration, scores drop by .8% in reading and by .7% in math.

"These findings suggest the need for further analysis on a number of important questions," says Forum President Rob Henken. "For example, why are academic achievement scores lagging particularly in schools where choice pupils make up the bulk of the student body? Why is turnover within the system so high? What are the factors that enable some MPCP schools with high concentration of choice students to achieve strong academic outcomes, while others are not?" 


The Forum plans to delve further into these and related questions not only for the MPCP schools, but also for MPS and charter schools in the City of Milwaukee as part of its expanded education research agenda this year. Two reports that will speak to these issues will be released later this summer.


This year's MPCP Research Brief and directory were sponsored by the Argosy Foundation. They can be accessed at: http://publicpolicyforum.org/research/number-voucher-schools-relatively-unchanged-2003-while-enrollment-has-doubled