Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

GU Launches Study on Milwaukee Vouchers

Since its inception more than a decade ago, Milwaukee’s school vouchers program – the largest in the nation – has been looked to as a test case by both supporters and critics of the policy. Now, a Georgetown-led research team is looking to set the record straight.

The Public Policy Institute’s School Choice Demonstration Project announced plans last week to launch a five-year evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which since 1990 has provided vouchers redeemable for tuition at participating private schools to over 15,000 city students whose families fall under the poverty level.

According to Patrick Wolf, the project’s principal investigator and a public policy assistant professor for the university, the research team will investigate the program through objective and qualitative measures, comparing standardized-test scores and conducting interviews and focus groups with parents and students who use the program to gauge customer satisfaction.

“The goal is to bring a rich set of evidence to a number of lingering questions about school vouchers,” he said.

Wolf, who is two years into a five-year investigation of the D.C.-based voucher program that has so far yielded positive results, said that Milwaukee’s program, the first of its kind in the country, may present more challenges because of its size and scope. But Wolf said Georgetown researchers would try to alleviate those problems as much as possible by using new analytical techniques and control groups.

In addition to looking at the effects of school vouchers on students, Wolf said that the project will also investigate how the ilwaukee public school system has responded since the inception of the voucher program.

Kenneth Johnson, president of the Milwaukee school board, said that the city has strengthened the public school system since the voucher program was put in place. He added that the voucher program is important even with a strong public school system because private schools may offer some features that public schools cannot provide, such as a parochial education.

“The important part of all this is to make sure that poor students have as many options to educational opportunities and all are quality,” he said.

Johnson said that test scores and graduation rates have improved as a result of increased competition from the voucher program.

Mike Mikalsen, research assistant for Stephen Nass, a Republican Wisconsin state assemblyman, said that Milwaukee public schools do not provide an adequate option for students, and that the voucher program has been the only good source of education available to low-income students in the city.

“It’s at least given them an option,” Mikalsen said. “Many of them now see a future.”

Many opponents of the program have attacked it for being ineffective, while others have faltered the program for sponsoring religious education.

Jeremy Leaming, a spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that many Wisconsin students are shuttled into parochial schools by the voucher program because they comprise a large majority of participating private schools.

“We don’t think tax dollars should end up funding religious schooling,” he said.

The Supreme Court upheld a similar voucher program in Cleveland in 2002, and has refused to hear a challenge to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 1998 affirmation of the Milwaukee program.

Wolf said that the study will compare students of identical religious background, but will focus primarily on the effects of the program rather than the debate surrounding it.

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