By John Wagner
The State of Wisconsin has approved a significant expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Supporters identified three primary goals: (1) more educational options for children from low income families; (2) a better education for those children; and (3) improved performance in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
During legislative deliberations, a number of questions arose about the scope and impact of the proposed changes. This study seeks to answers several of those questions.
- Private Schools and Private School Students: Who attends private schools? What is their demographic profile? What private schools in the City of Milwaukee are eligible to participate in the expanded program? Are they “elite” institutions? Where are they located?
- Educational Achievement: How do public school students in MPS compare with public school students elsewhere in Wisconsin? How do they compare with private school students in the City of Milwaukee?
- Eligible Students: How large is the total pool of students eligible for the expanded program? What is known about them and their families? How are they doing in school? Where do they live?
This study concludes (i) that the expanded MPCP will meet the goal of increased educational opportunity for students from low-income families and (ii) that these students are among the lowest achievers in MPS. Further research, based on actual results, will be necessary to determine if the expanded program meets the goal of increased educational achievement. Other findings include:
- Private schools in the City of Milwaukee aren’t elite. The demographic profile of private school students and families in the city is similar to the nearly 700,000 students in the 426 Wisconsin public school districts outside the city.
- Because of limited income, parents of students eligible for the MPCP choose private schools at a much reduced rate from other parents. While about 21% of Milwaukee school-age children are in private schools, in low-income neighborhoods the rate is 7% and in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods it is 30%. For children of Milwaukee school teachers, the rate is 33%.
- Educational achievement at private high schools in Milwaukee is somewhat higher than at public schools elsewhere in Wisconsin and significantly higher than in MPS. Comparative measures used to reach this conclusion included: (i) attendance, dropout, and graduation rates; (ii) college entrance test scores; (iii) the percent of seniors likely to be college-bound; (iv) the percent of students taking high school standardized exams; and (v) among public students, scores on those exams.
- Students most likely to graduate from MPS attended a private school or a non-MPS public school before high school.
- About 65,000 to 70,000 school-age children in Milwaukee are in families eligible for the MPCP. Maximum participation under the expanded program is about 15,700. Existing private schools have capacity to accept alx>ut 6,400 additional students. There is added capacity for alx>ut 1,840 students at several closed private schools.
- On average, students eligible for the MPCP perform poorly in school and are less likely to graduate from high school.
- Most eligible students live in areas of high poverty. More than two-thirds are in families headed by a female with no husband present. About 43% of eligible families receive some public assistance; 45% are headed by someone without a high school degree. Most are from Milwaukee’s Black neighborhoods, where low educational achievement and poverty exist side-by-side.
In reaching these and other conclusions, this study includes previously unreported information made available with assistance from the Wisconsin Demographic Services Center. For example, to describe who is eligible for school choice, the Center assisted in preparing a citywide profile of eligible families. The Center also identified the 73 census tracts in Milwaukee in which a majority of eligible students live. To compare public and private school students, the report drew from a new and comprehensive database released during the course of the last year and made available by the Center.