What It Says, What It Will Say

Yesterday, the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) released several reports kicking off their five-year longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), arguably the nation’s best-known school voucher initiative.

Throughout the most important of the reports—the one establishing achievement levels for voucher students and socio-economically similar Milwaukee public school kids—the authors warn readers not to use the scores to judge schools’ effectiveness. Because it is “snapshot,” baseline data, the scores alone say nothing about how much a school teaches over time, only where students sit at a single moment.

Sadly, some in the media didn’t listen, reporting that private and public schools perform equally poorly. As education reporter Alan Borsuk wrote in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “the first full-force examination since 1995 of Milwaukee’s groundbreaking school voucher program has found that students attending private schools through the program aren’t doing much better or worse than students in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

It seems some reporters just don’t read research, don’t understand it, or want to push their agenda regardless of what the research tells them.

Unfortunately, as bad as reporting on school choice is, in the end Milwaukee-style choice probably won’t have a huge effect. Sure, the voucher kids will probably learn more than comparable students in traditional public schools, as research has found over and over again, but the research has never found large advantages, and there’s nothing in current school choice programs to suggest that that will soon change. The simple fact is that even with slowly growing school choice the amount of market freedom in American education is far too small to foster real competition and innovation. The public schools are still the 800-pound guerilla and what choice we have is seriously hamstrung.

Just look at Milwaukee. It has more choice than almost any other district in the United States, but has only about 17,000 students in its voucher program and 16,000 in its charter schools, constituting just about 28 percent of the city’s roughly 120,000 school-aged kids. Making matters worse, within those systems freedom is heavily curtailed. Charter schools are only given their right to exist by public authorities, their enrollments must be racially balanced, and they can’t deny admission for academic reasons. Similarly, the MPCP forbids parents from supplementing vouchers with their own funds, is open only to low-income children, and requires participating schools to admit all choice students for whom they have seats.

School choice in Milwaukee is light-years from the free-market at work, and though it’s better than no choice at all, it will likely make some news stories today come close to fitting the facts tomorrow.