After more than a quarter of a century studying Milwaukee’s schools, John Witte has heard every doomsday scenario about school choice.
One of the most persistent is that school choice undermines public schools, making them worse.
“It’s not true. If anything, it works in the opposite direction,” Witte, emeritus professor of political science and public policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Wisconsin Watchdog.
“Giving parents choices about where to send their children seems to force public schools to improve their performance,” Witte said.
“Studies have shown that the greater the concentration of school choices in an area — voucher schools, charters and even magnet schools — the more likely the public schools there will show an improvement in performance.”
No one has examined the performance of Milwaukee schools more closely than Witte. He served as principal investigator on both of the long term studies that compared the city’s public school and voucher schools.
Witte was also in charge of the last major study of Milwaukee Public Schools prior to the introduction of school choice in 1990. That study, the results of which were published in 1985, compared MPS schools to schools in the city’s suburbs.
“The opening line was ‘I’m going to tell you about two different worlds, separated by three miles,’” Witte recalled.
The difference between the troubled and failing Milwaukee schools and the better funded and better performing suburban schools was so stark that one of Witte’s colleagues was reduced to tears while visiting a suburban school.
Witte’s detailed knowledge of the problems in MPS schools was one of the reasons he maintained an open mind when the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program began in 1990.
That was an uncommon attitude in Madison.
Sitting in the UW-Madison Education Building, Witte recalled, “Everybody in this building was opposed to the voucher program at the time and Director of Public Instruction Herbert Grover was an outspoken opponent of vouchers.”
But Grover also recognized Witte’s expertise and appointed him to lead the first long-term study of Milwaukee’s voucher program. The study lasted from 1990 to 1995.
The school choice program was small during that period. In 1990, there were only seven schools with 341 voucher students in the program. By the end of the study, 12 schools with 830 students were participating in the program.
Despite the small sample, Witte and his team were able to document the impact the program was beginning to have. Perhaps the most telling findings involved how readily the voucher program was being embraced by parents.
The study found parents of students at voucher schools were more heavily involved in their children’s education both at school and home. Those parents also expressed greater satisfaction with their schools than public school parents.
“For the first time, these inner city families didn’t have to send their kids to a school assigned to them based on where they were living. They were finally given a choice,” Witte said.
Witte continued his study of school choice in Milwaukee and around the country, incorporating his findings into his 2001 book, “The Market Approach to Education.” The book was widely praised for Witte’s reliance on facts rather than the overheated rhetoric common in discussions of school choice.
“Amid the welter of claims and counterclaims, it is heartening to hear the careful study of the voucher movement by John Witte,” wrote Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, in a review of Witte’s book.
In 2005, when the Wisconsin Legislature ordered another long-term study of the Milwaukee choice program, Witte was again selected as principal investigator.
“It’s the gold standard of research projects on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, told Wisconsin Watchdog.
The choice program had grown rapidly since the first study. In 2006, the first year of the new study, the program had 122 schools with 17,749 students. At its conclusion in 2011, the number of schools had shrunk to 103, but the number of participating students had risen to 20,996.
The greater number of schools allowed Witte and his team to better compare the outcomes being produced voucher schools and public schools.
Witte didn’t follow the common approach of comparing the standardized test scores of various schools.
“It’s very hard to get meaningful information from test scores, as the people who design the tests will tell you. There are just too many variables,” explained Witte.
The second study broke new ground by looking at a more concrete metric. It compared graduation rates at voucher schools and public schools.
Voucher schools had a higher graduation rate than public schools. Voucher school students who went on to college also attended more highly rated colleges and were more likely to remained enrolled after their freshman year.
The second study was also able to document the effect of competition on public schools.
“Public schools get better. That’s what our study shows. Three statewide studies in Florida found the same competitive effect,” Witte said. “These are statistically significant studies.”
Voucher schools achieved all this even though they receive less money per-pupil than public schools do.
Witte thinks the funding disparity actually works to the advantage of voucher schools.
“In my book I wrote about the positive effects of economic scarcity. The voucher schools have to stick with a rigorous academic curriculum. They don’t have the money to follow the latest academic trends or teach ‘fluff courses,’” Witte explained.
Reflecting on the results of Milwaukee’s voucher program after 25 years, Witte considers the program a qualified success.
“It’s not a silver bullet. The problems of the inner city, poverty, employment prospects, housing, are all intertwined. School choice provides a route out for some of the families.”
“It doesn’t work for all the families, it doesn’t work for all the kids, but what if it works for 40 percent? That’s a reasonable number for those who are better off,” Witte said. “Those are better results than we had with 50 years of other programs we’ve thrown money at.”
Contact Paul Brennan at [email protected]