The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is a comprehensive school choice program that serves some of the lowest performing students in the nation. Now two decades old, MPCP has allowed mostly poor and black parents to choose any school—public or private, religious or secular—for their children to attend.
The most recent evaluation report of MPCP shows parents of voucher students continue to report high levels of satisfaction with their children’s education, a common finding in the school choice literature. MPCP has had minimal effect, however, on test scores. When researchers followed the progress of elementary and middle school students over a three year period, they found that voucher students perform at about the same level on academic tests as non-voucher students in Milwaukee.
What are the implications of these findings? First, the bleak scenarios predicted by some voucher opponents, who imagined the best students abandoning the public schools and leaving poor students even worse off, have clearly not come to pass. In fact, a previous report found that test scores of Milwaukee public school students actually improve slightly as the number of competing private schools goes up. As with the recent evaluation of the Edgewood Voucher Program in Texas, no plausible interpretation of the data suggests that public school students have been set back. Vouchers do not harm public schools—not in Milwaukee, not in Edgewood, and not anywhere else.
The second implication is that test scores are only one factor parents consider in evaluating schools. Many parents in urban areas like Milwaukee also seek a safe environment that fosters a culture of learning. The MPCP evaluation report, for example, says that parents “draw upon student attitudes and behaviors regarding school, and not test scores, to assess educational progress.”
Some voucher skeptics—Matt Yglesias is good example—think MPCP is a failure because parents have not demanded higher test scores. Disturbed that parents could be satisfied without seeing academic improvement, Yglesias and others think parents are not acting as rational consumers.
In reality, parents probably understand the limitations of social policy better than most academics and policymakers. Rather than obsessing over elusive test score gains, parents seem to have a more nuanced and child-specific set of criteria—they want schools that are safe, that cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and that best fit their children’s abilities and interests. Only school choice programs like MCPS can satisfy these diverse preferences and expectations. Policymakers should not think of school choice as just another tool for satisfying central planners.