Study Description: Milwaukee Parental Choice

The Program

The Choice Program is a targeted private school subsidy program with the following characteristics:

Family Qualifications:

  • Students must come from households with income 1.75 times the poverty line or less.
  • Students may not have been in private schools or in school districts other than the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) District in the prior year.

School Qualifications:

  • Eligible schools must be private, nonsectarian schools with no religious affiliation or training.
  • Schools cannot discriminate in selection based on race, religion, gender, prior achievement, or prior behavioral records. Schools were exempted by court ruling from the Education for All Handicapped Act.
  • If classes are oversubscribed, selection is on a random basis.
  • Choice students may only be 65% of the students in the school.
  • Schools must meet at least one standard established for attendance, parental involvement, student achievement on standardized tests, or grade progress.

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 number of applications has also increased, with the largest increase in 1992-93. In the last two years, however, applications have leveled off at a little over 1,000 per year. Applications exceeded the number of available seats (as determined by the private schools) by 171, 143, 307, 238 and 64 from 1990-91 through 1994-95. It is difficult to determine how many more applications would be made if more schools participated and more seats were available. In 1992-93, when the number of participating schools increased from 6 to 11, applications rose by 45%. In the last two years, however, seats available increased by 22% and 21%, but applications only increased by 5% from 1992-93 to 1993-94 and declined this past year.

In the first four years, parents learned of the program primarily from friends and relatives. In general, choice parents reported high and, over the two years, increasing levels of satisfaction with the amount and accuracy of the information, and the assistance they received from the choice schools and the State Department of Public Instruction.

The overall portrait of choice students and families is complex, but very consistent over the years. The data clearly indicate that choice can be targeted toward poor families attempting to find an alternative to what they view as a poor educational environment for their children. The choice students come from poor, mostly single-parent households. Similar to MPS parents, approximately 60% are receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children or public assistance. The parents also express considerable dissatisfaction with prior public schools, and, based on prior test scores, there is clear evidence that their children were not doing well in those schools (both in relative and absolute terms).

Despite being poor, however, the choice families are smaller than those in the comparison groups, thus providing an opportunity for parents to focus more on any single child. In addition, the parents (especially mothers) are more educated, appear to have somewhat higher educational expectations for their children, and are more likely to work at home with their children on education problems. Finally, the choice parents participated in their children's prior schools at higher rates than the average parent.

The Choice Schools

Due to limited resources and because a thorough review of the schools was included in last year's report, this report has little additional data on the choice schools. Last year's section on the schools is included as Appendix B. Staff turnover was up slightly in 1994-95, from 18% to 24%. Four of twelve schools had new principals or head administrators. Sixty-four percent of the teachers were Wisconsin certified.


Outcomes after four years of the Choice Program remain mixed. Achievement change scores have varied considerably in the first four 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 third and fourth years. Because sample size was very small in the first year, the gain in reading was not statistically significant, but the decline in year two was. In math, choice students were essentially the same in the first two years, but recorded a significant increase in the third year, but that was followed by a significant decline 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 controlling for a number of factors and comparing choice students to MPS students show mixed and mostly insignificant results over the four years. Thus there is no systematic evidence that choice students do either better or worse than MPS students once we have controlled for gender, race, income, grade and prior achievement. In addition, when we included variables distinguishing the number of years choice students were in private school, the results varied (the signs of the effects changed) and were not statistically significant at conventional levels.

Parental attitudes toward choice schools, opinions of the Choice Program, and parental involvement were very positive for choice parents over the first four years. 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 four 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.

Attrition (not counting students in alternative choice schools) has been 44%, 32%, 28%, and 23% in the four years of the program. Estimates of attrition in MPS are uncertain, but in the last two years, attrition from the Choice Program was comparable to the range of mobility between schools in MPS. Students who left were very similar to those who continued in terms of parental involvement and family demographics (income, family status). Those who left the program did have lower prior test scores, lower scores in the private schools, and lower change scores than students who returned. They also lived farther away than continuing students. Finally, the parents of attrition students expressed lower levels of satisfaction with the choice schools. The reasons given for leaving include complaints about the Choice Program, especially the limitation on religious instruction and problems with transportation. They also include complaints about staff, general educational quality and the lack of specialized programs in the private schools. We probably underestimate the number of students who left for family-specific purposes, such as moving out of the area, because we were less likely to be able to locate those families. Based on follow-up surveys and interviews, we know that approximately half of the students appear to be returning to MPS schools, with most of the rest going to other private schools.

We also evaluated the differences over four years between choice families and students and students who applied to the program but were not selected. In terms of outcomes, test score changes were very similar between the two groups -- never approaching statistically significant differences. Thus there was no difference in terms of achievement between those who got into the program and those who did not. However, on parental involvement, the importance parents place on education, and satisfaction with private or other subsequent schools, choice parents appeared to be significantly higher. Choice parents were more satisfied with their schools, more involved and place slightly more importance on education than on other goals. These findings exactly parallel the differences noted between choice and our MPS random sample control group.


We have tried to provide a very broad array of data on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program so that those who read this report can form their own opinions based on the criteria they deem most important. Three critical issues have guided the study.

Does the Program Provide Alternative Educational Opportunities? As we have noted in all of the reports on this program, the answer to the question is yes. Private education is probably beyond the means of the vast majority of the families applying to the Choice Program. The families are unhappy with their prior experiences in public schools, and their children are not doing as well as most children in the public schools.

Does the Program Harm the Existing System of Public Education in Milwaukee? The program enrolled 830 students in 12 schools on the third Friday in September 1994; the Milwaukee Public School system was teaching over 96,000 students on the same day. The students in the Choice Program were not the best, or even the average students from the Milwaukee system. Thus both in terms of size and the potential for "creaming," this program, as currently configured, poses little threat to the MPS system. Choice parents, however, were more educated and more involved with their prior public schools than average MPS parents. Thus the loss of these (few) parents can be construed as potentially detrimental to engaging and involving parents in the public schools.

Have the Outcomes of the Program Been Successful? The answer to this question remains mixed. In terms of achievement test scores, the answer is that students perform approximately the same as MPS students. Those who leave the program come in with lower test scores, and leave still behind. On the other hand, attendance of choice children is slightly higher, and overall parental satisfaction with the private schools and the program is high. For the schools, the program has generally been positive. It has allowed several to survive, several to expand, and contributed to the building of a new school which opened in 1993.

Honorable people can disagree on the importance of each of these factors. One way to think about the program is to ask 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 was 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.

What Does This Study Not Address? This program provides very limited evidence for evaluating or anticipating the effects of more inclusive choice programs. Programs proposed in other states, such as the tuition voucher initiatives in Colorado or California, did not have the same conditions for eligibility or school selection procedures as this program. Furthermore, families taking advantage of choice opportunities in these relatively unconstrained programs could well be very different from those in the targeted Milwaukee program.

Expansion of this program to include religious schools, which is probably the only feasible way to enlarge the program significantly, pushes the program into uncharted waters and involves a whole new set of issues. These would include constitutional issues at both the state and federal level, questions of governmental subsidy and regulation of religious organizations, fiscal issues, and political questions concerning how far and with what conditions the program would be expanded in the future. These are all very serious issues, none of which have been addressed in these studies.


With the exception of fluctuating test scores, the vast majority of evidence in this report is consistent with and confirms the evidence presented in the first three years of reports. The recommendations of those reports, most of which were included in both the Governor's budget and the budget of the Department of Public Instruction in 1993, were not acted upon by the legislature. See Appendix C for a copy of those recommendations. We feel they remain valid.

In addition, we would suggest several changes and additions. First, we recommended in the first year that the schools be required to meet all statewide outcome assessment standards required of public schools. Since that time, the outcome standards required of public schools in terms of statewide tests and school report cards have increased considerably. Although we applaud these changes based on the vastly improved quality of information they provide to parents, citizens, and government officials, some of the data required of public schools may be very difficult and costly for the private schools to generate. Thus we maintain the thrust of the recommendation -- that more information should be available on the performance of choice schools -- but do not advocate automatic adoption of all standards as they are currently promulgated.

Second, a number of the schools over the years have been lax in providing information in a timely manner to the Department of Public Instruction. Often this is simply the result of overworked and changing staffs in the private schools, but it does affect the timely and accurate administration of the program, and there is almost nothing the Department of Public Instruction can do about it because the statute gave them almost no enforcement powers. That matter should be addressed in any revisions of the statutes and administrative rules governing the program.

Finally, perhaps the most pressing problem, which we have alluded to in every report, are needed changes in the transportation reimbursement system. We encourage the legislature to reconsider our prior recommendations on that and other issues.