New Study Shows Little Initial Achievement Advantage for Milwaukee Charter School Students

Continued fiscal savings from city's school voucher program

Thursday, December 16, 2010
Patrick J. Wolf and Robert M. Costrell

Patrick J. Wolf and Robert M. Costrell

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Researchers report little difference in academic achievement of students attending independent charter schools in Milwaukee and students attending Milwaukee Public Schools in a preliminary study released Wednesday, Dec. 15. John F. Witte of the University of Wisconsin and Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas led the charter school study.

Robert M. Costrell, also a researcher at the University of Arkansas, released a new analysis of the taxpayer savings from the operation of Milwaukee's long-running school voucher program. The report discusses options for adjusting the value of the voucher, which low-income parents can use to cover private school tuition, and better equalizing the distribution of the fiscal benefits of the program across different kinds of taxpayers.

Wolf leads the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research organization based at the University of Arkansas that is conducting a five-year evaluation of school choice programs in Milwaukee. The reports, which are the 21st and 22nd released so far by the project, can be read on the demonstration project's website.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are authorized to operate within an agreed charter and are often given waivers from some administrative and accountability requirements of other public schools. Independent charter schools are authorized by non-district entities, Wolf explained. Milwaukee is one of the few places in the United States that contains both district-authorized charter schools and independent charter schools.

The research showed few significant effects of attending a charter school on achievement gains in either math or reading after one year, with the exception of one model the researchers used for math. Controlling for prior achievement, they found some math gains for the charter school students.

"The initial evidence suggests that charter school students in Milwaukee are doing about as well as similar public school students in reading but may be slightly outgaining them in math," stated Witte. He cautioned that more definite evidence will come from future reports drawing upon more years of achievement data.

The team looked further into differences among charter schools and found students in independent charter schools that were converted from private schools performed better than students in Milwaukee Public Schools in both math and reading after controlling for factors such as student characteristics and school switching. Students in non-conversion, independent charter schools did not score higher than their counterparts in Milwaukee Public Schools, the team found.

"These results indicate that Milwaukee's means-tested voucher program might be serving as a 'proving ground' for independent schools," Wolf commented. "Some formerly private schools are now thriving in the independent charter school sector, where they can enroll students above the voucher program income cap and receive more funding for each student."

Wolf also reported that a larger percentage of students in Milwaukee Public Schools switched schools than those in independent charters. The research found that switching schools has a negative effect on student achievement gains.

Two doctoral students at the University of Wisconsin, Alicia Dean and Devin Carlson, also co-authored the charter school study. The team plans to conduct analyses on the charter school data for three more years and to study graduation from high school for charter and non-charter students. It will use case studies to provide insights into what types of schools and educational practices seem to work best within charter, voucher and traditional public schools.

The project also released its third report on the fiscal impact of the school voucher program in Milwaukee. In that report, Costrell examined the difference between the public funds expended on Wisconsin students, including those in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and the amount that would have been spent without the voucher program. He also studied how that fiscal impact was distributed among various groups of taxpayers and the Milwaukee Public Schools.

According to Costrell, net fiscal benefits of the voucher program have continued to grow.

The estimated increase was particularly sharp in fiscal year 2010, from $37.2 million to $46.7 million. This increase was primarily due to the cut in the voucher amount, while per pupil revenue in Milwaukee Public Schools continued to grow from $9,462 to $9,727, and secondarily because of enrollment growth in the voucher program. For fiscal year 2011, continuing growth in the Milwaukee Public Schools revenue limit to $10,013 will widen the gap with the voucher, raising the net fiscal benefit of the program from $46.7 million to $51.9 million, even assuming no growth in the voucher program enrollment. He said the voucher amount, which was reduced, could be increased and still generate positive net fiscal impacts.

The net fiscal benefits continue to be unevenly distributed, however, with an adverse impact on Milwaukee property taxpayers, although mitigated somewhat by recent legislative efforts, Costrell found. This "funding flaw" is caused by the fact that voucher expenses are deducted from Milwaukee's state aid, even though no aid is granted to Milwaukee for voucher students. Costrell suggested two methods for revamping the funding mechanism in a way to eliminate the “funding flaw,” so that all groups of taxpayers could benefit, to varying degrees, from the program.

Wolf holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice, and Costrell holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in Accountability, both in the College of Education and Health Professions.


Patrick J. Wolf, Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice
College of Education and Health Professions

Robert M. Costrell, Twenty-First Century Chair in Accountability
College of Education and Health Professions

Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions

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