Suppose the Milwaukee Public Schools undertook a contrarian experiment.  Key elements:

  • Participation by schools would be voluntary.
  • Schools would get about half the taxpayer support of other MPS schools.  Adjusted for inflation, funding would be frozen.  
  • Schools could not use selective admission criteria (as many MPS schools do).
  • Eligible students would come from a group of the city’s lowest performing students.
 
To those with a conventional view of K-12 education, such an experiment would make no sense.   Obviously, in their view, an “underfunded” program focused on the city’s most disadvantaged students would fail.
 
Imagine that, after five years, those who studied the experiment found that:
 
  • Participating students graduated from high school and attended college at a statistically significant, 10% higher rate than other MPS students.
  • Test scores were similar until the final year, when students in the experiment showed statistically significant gains in reading.
 
In other words, for a fraction of the cost at most MPS schools, those in the experiment finished high school and attended college at higher rates.  And, at the experiment’s end, they had higher reading scores.  
 
In fact, this is exactly what has occurred in Milwaukee.  The experimental conditions described above are the framework of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.  The program lets eligible private schools enroll students from low- and moderate-income families who receive a state voucher.  The academic results — higher graduation and college attendance rates and higher reading scores — are documented by the nation’s leading researchers on the subject of school choice.
 
While such results don’t impress opponents of the program as notable, the outcome should prompt objective observers — in theory that would include the news media — to ask questions.  For example:
 
  • Why would disadvantaged students do as well — and often better — than MPS students at a fraction of the cost?  This question is especially relevant in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newsroom, where reporters and columnists worry ad nauseum about the impact of “financial pressure” on MPS.
  • Would schools in the choice program produce higher academic results if they had more financial resources?   
  • Is it significant that the Milwaukee results are consistent with a dozen rigorous evaluations of similar programs elsewhere in America?  Do such results suggest a need to expand the scope and financial support of educational choice in Wisconsin?
 
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel should be the authoritative media outlet on school choice research and the Milwaukee program. Yet it has elected not to address such  obvious questions. The paper’s editorial board, without citing a single specific research finding, recently said that it is unimpressed with the evidence. A columnist for the paper says the results are “tepid, at best.” The columnist’s “analysis” goes no further than the conclusion that there are some good schools and some schools that aren’t so good. As for the paper’s education reporters, they give more prominent coverage to “findings” that do not begin to meet conventional research standards.  
 
The public deserves objective information about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Regrettably, the Journal Sentinel has failed in its obligation to provide that information.
 
A former journalist, George Mitchell is an education and public policy consultant.. In 1984, Democratic Wisconsin Governor Anthony Earl named him to chair a commission that studied public schools in metropolitan Milwaukee.