Educational Vouchers: A Review of the Research


Alex Molnar


Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201


October, 1999





Educational Vouchers: A Review of the Research
October 1999

Alex Molnar
Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

This document combines excerpts from two reports: "Smaller Classes -- Not Vouchers -- Increase Student Achievement" (Harrisburg, Pa.: Keystone Research Center, March 1998); and "Smaller Classes and Educational Vouchers: A Research Update" (Harrisburg, Pa.: Keystone Research Center, June 1999). Both documents are available on the website of the Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation at

Table of Contents - Exercept 1
Historical Background
Educational Choice Enters the Mainstream
The Battle Over Vouchers Today
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program
The Debate Over the Achievement Effect of the Milwaukee Voucher Program
Box 3: Public vs. Private Schools
Why Different Researchers Reach Different Conclusions
The Witte Evaluations
Box 4: Sorting through the Conflicting Voucher Results
The Greene, Peterson, and Du Evaluation
Box 5: When are Significant Results Not So Significant?
The Rouse Evaluation
Milwaukee’s Private Voucher Program -- PAVE
Box 6 - A Case Example of the Relative Cost and Performance of Public and Private Schools

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (CSTP)
Vouchers, Values, and Educational Equity
Box 7: Does Money Matter? School Spending and School Outcomes


Table of Contents - Exercept 2
The Argument Over Vouchers
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program
The Achievement Effects of the Milwaukee Voucher Program

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (CSTP)
Official Evaluation Results for CSTP
Private Voucher Programs
Private School Vouchers (Con't)
Vouchers and Educational Equity

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program

Until the Wisconsin state legislature passed Act 36 in 1990, establishing the nation’s first private school voucher program, the debate over vouchers took place wholly on the ideological and philosophical plane. Even today, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the only voucher program for which large amounts of systematic data are available. For this reason, the Milwaukee program occupies a central place in any discussion of the merits of private school vouchers. 

The MPCP initially allowed up to 1 percent (about 1,000) of low-income Milwaukee Public School students to attend participating private, non-sectarian schools within the city. The program defined "low-income" as below 175% of the official U.S. poverty line. Each child attending a private school in the program receives a voucher worth the per-pupil equalized state aide to the Milwaukee Public Schools, originally set at $2,446. 

Participating schools had to meet only one of four educational requirements:

1) at least 70 percent of pupils advance one a grade level each year,

2) attendance averages at least 90 percent,

3) at least 80 percent of students demonstrate significant academic progress, or

4) at least 70 percent of their families had to meet parental involvement criteria established by the private school.

Unlike public schools, teachers at Choice schools need not be certified, nor does the curriculum of the schools have to be reviewed or accredited by an outside agency. Choice schools do not have to meet the financial disclosure or other record keeping requirements placed on the public schools. After a lawsuit, participating private schools need not serve children with exceptional educational needs. 

The Wisconsin legislature created Milwaukee’s Choice program as a five-year experiment and provided for yearly evaluations of the academic achievement of students attending Choice schools. Governor Thompson vetoed the five-year time limit on the program but left the requirement of annual program evaluations intact. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wisconsin law in 1992, reasoning that it affected a small number of children living in poverty, did not include religious schools, and what the state learned from the experience might benefit children elsewhere in Wisconsin.25

In 1993, Act 16 modified the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to raise (effective 1994-95) the number of students who could participate from 1 percent to 1.5 percent (about 1,500 students) of the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) population. The same Act allowed the maximum number of Choice students at participating schools to increase from 49 percent to 65 percent of the total student population. 

Since 1990, there have been five official yearly evaluations of the Milwaukee voucher experiment (discussed at length in the next section) by University of Wisconsin political science Professor John Witte.26 Witte found no statistically significant differences between the achievement of students attending Choice schools and the achievement of random samples of students attending the Milwaukee Public Schools. He did, however, find a high degree of parental satisfaction with Choice schools.

A 1995 report by Harvard Professor Paul Peterson sharply criticized Witte and his statistical methods.27 These methods, Peterson argued, understated the positive academic impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Peterson’s argument echoed a 1992 critique, "The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program," written by George Mitchell for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.28

In February 1995, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, the research arm of the legislature, released its own report on the Milwaukee program. The report did not find Witte’s methods inappropriate. However, it contended that no conclusion -- not even Witte’s finding of no significant difference -- could be drawn about academic performance under the voucher program compared to the Milwaukee Public Schools.29

During the 1995 legislative debate over the expansion of the Choice program, the Peterson critique and Witte annual reviews enabled both advocates and opponents to claim that the data supported their position. Unfortunately, instead of attempting to strengthen and improve the evaluation requirements for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, voucher supporters lobbied successfully to eliminate the annual program evaluation requirement. As revised in 1995 (Act 27), the evaluation components of the MPCP consisted of a requirement that the Legislative Audit Bureau report on the finances and performance of the program after five years (January 15, 2001) and a provision requiring that each voucher school provide the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction with an annual independent financial audit. The 1995 revision of the MPCP did not, however, require that the schools participating in the program gather the achievement data necessary for a rigorous evaluation.

The 1995 legislation allowed religious schools to participate in the program, and raised the number of students who could participate to 7 percent of the Milwaukee Public School enrollment in 1995-96 and 15 percent in 1996-97. The new legislation also allowed up to 100 percent of the students attending a Choice school to be voucher students.

On August 25, 1995, the Wisconsin Supreme Court enjoined all of the 1995 modifications to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. On March 29, 1996, the supreme court deadlocked 3-3 on the constitutionality of 1995 modifications and sent the case back to circuit court for trial. On August 15, 1996, the circuit court retained the injunction barring  implementation of religious school participation in the program but lifted the injunction on other parts of the 1995 legislation. The Dane County Circuit Court ruled the entire 1995 Act unconstitutional on January 15, 1997. In June 1998, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling, admitting religious schools to the program for the first time. The US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Continue with the Next SectionThe Debate Over the Achievement Effect of the Milwaukee Voucher Program