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School Vouchers and Student Attainment: Evidence from a State-Mandated Study of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program

School Choice, School Vouchers
Authors: Joshua M. Cowen, David J. Fleming, John F. Witte, Patrick J. Wolf, and Brian Kisida
The Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 4, No.1, 2013

Policymakers and scholars alike have looked to studies of school choice programs for evidence that students do “better” or “worse” in alternatives to the traditional public sector. Nearly all of these studies have focused largely on the performance of students on standardized tests. Many scholars acknowledge and several actually consider the importance of other outcomes, including the effects of school choice on student and parent satisfaction and civic values (e.g., Campbell, 2008; Dee, 2005; Howell, Peterson, Wolf, & Campbell, 2006; Schneider, Teske, Marschall, Mintrom, & Roch, 1997; Wolf et al., 2009) and the indirect effects of school choice on other socially desirable goals such as racial integration and the narrowing of racial, ethnic, and gender gaps in achievement (e.g., Betts, Rice, Zau, Tang, & Koedel, 2006; Bifulco & Ladd, 2007; Greene, 2005; Neal, 2006; Zimmer et al., 2009). As with other school choice programs, studies of school voucher programs have primarily focused on student test scores. These include evaluations of privately funded programs (Cowen, 2008; Howell, Wolf, Campbell, & Peterson, 2002; Howell et al.,2006) and analyses of public programs (Greene, Peterson, & Du, 1999; Metcalf, West, Legan, Paul, & Boone, 2003; Rouse, 1998;Witte, 2000;Wolf et al., 2013). Some of these studies have also reported to varying degrees on other indicators, often finding large and positive voucher effects on parent satisfaction and views of school safety whilealso reporting small or marginal effects on test scores (e.g.,Witte, 2000; Howell et al., 2006; Wolf et al., 2009).

Perhaps the most important alternative to student test scores as a measure of success in educational policy is attainment: reaching a given level of schooling such as a high school diploma, enrollment in post secondary education, or earning a bachelor’s degree and beyond. Educational attainment is an important indicator for school quality because it may be a direct result of the development of academic and life skills related to a variety of valuable outcomes of interest to policymakers and employers. These include regular employment, aversion to criminal and other dysfunctional behavior, and the generation and growth of personal income and savings. Studies have shown that students who have at least a high school degree can expect higher average life expectancy (Meara, Richards, & Cutler, 2008) and that even 1-year increases in education can reduce the probability of dying in the next 10 years (Lleras-Muney, 2005). College attainment is associated with higher levels of overall health (Wirt et al., 2004) and better health care (Muennig, 2005; Rouse, 2005). Not surprisingly, future wealth is also dependent on educational attainment (Day & Newburger, 2002; Heckman & Carneiro, 2003; Rouse, 2005), and this extends the benefits of higher attainment rates beyond the individual to broader social benefits such as increased tax revenue and economic development (Belfield & Levin, 2007). Beyond pecuniary benefits, governments may also see reductions in crime associated with increases in educational attainment (Belfield & Levin, 2009; Levitt & Lochner, 2001). Although such relationships between attainment and future success may not be surprising, graduation rates are still disturbingly low nationwide, especially for boys and particularly in the nation’s largestschool districts (Greene & Winters, 2006).

Despite such importance, attainment is generally not well studied in the literature on school choice. Several early studies examined the effect of attending a Catholic high school on student attainment (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987; Neal, 1997). These studies generally concluded that students graduated at much higher rates if they attended Catholic high schools, especially if they were urban minorities. Graduation and post secondary enrollment are increasingly of interest in studies of other school choice policies. Most notably, a multi state study of charter schools found large attainment gains for students who moved from traditional public schools to charter schools (Zimmer et al., 2009), and a study of public school choice in Chicago indicated modest impacts of choice on the probability of high graduation (Lauen, 2009). In the school voucher literature, only two studies have examined the association between participating in a voucher program and graduating from high school. A recent experimental evaluation of Washington, DC’s federal voucher program concluded that using a voucher increased the likelihood of high school graduation by 21 percentage points (Wolf et al., 2013). An observational study of a limited set of high schools in Milwaukee reported that they graduated their voucher students at a rate about 12 percentage points higher than the system-wide graduation rate for Milwaukee’s public schools (Warren, 2011).

In this article, we consider data from a state-mandated evaluation of the City of Milwaukee’s large, publicly funded school voucher program. We provide evidence that attainment may indeed be related to the school choices families make, at least insofar as these choices pertain to a voucher-funded private or traditional public school. That Milwaukee is a large, urban school district only adds to the importance of the question of whether school choice boosts the levels of student attainment.If quality of life is directly related to educational attainment, if attainment is a direct result of certain schooling conditions to which a student is exposed, and if these schooling conditions may vary as a result of individual parent and student decisions, then the long-term social and economic consequences of school choice programs may be far greater than the impact of such policies on more transitory outcomes like individual test scores. We proceed with our analysis by describing the state-mandated evaluation on which it was based, and the data and analytical procedures we employ. Next we present basic tabulations and statistical models of high school graduation and post secondary enrollment, and consider reasons why students did not complete a high school degree. We then consider the characteristics of postsecondary institutions attended by voucher or public school students. We conclude by presenting several caveats to this work, and by discussing our results in the context of ongoing and future research on public–private differences in student outcomes.

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