The Milwaukee Voucher Failure

One of the very first magazine pieces I ever published was about how the Milwaukee school voucher program—the largest and most robust in the country—wasn’t leading to any gains in learning for Milwaukee schoolkids. The data was somewhat controversial at the time, but in the intervening years the case has become clearer and clearer as, for example, AEI’s Rick Hess is prepared to concede albeit in a somewhat odd manner.

Giving parents choices about where to send their kids to school has certain kinds of virtues. It turns out, however, that parents of low-income kids don’t seem to particularly use this freedom to select schools that are good at improving kids’ academic performance. At least they’re not sufficiently invested in doing that so as to put a lot of pressure on schools to figure out ways to improve academic performance. The choice program does seem to lead to a lot of consumer satisfaction, but not actual improvements in performance. It’s sort of like when people switch to a “low fat” version of a product, find it’s surprisingly delicious, and don’t pay attention to the fact that it actually has just as many calories as the old variety.

At the end of the day, to improve academic performance you need policies that specifically focus on that goal. You can shut down charter schools that consistently deliver below-average demographically adjusted academic performance and allow operators of charter schools that consistently deliver above-average performance to open new franchises. You can pay teachers who consistently deliver above-average performance enough to persuade them to keep teaching. You can recognize that schools that teach a lot of poor kids are going to need more resources rather than fewer. You can try to research which pedagogical methods actually work instead of just guessing. But you can’t just throw some procedural switch and fix everything, especially if the process you put in place doesn’t even specifically focus on improved academic achievement.