Vouchers in Milwaukee

by Harry on April 21, 2004

Caroline Minter Hoxby has just published a paper (available, like all her papers, free at her website) in the Swedish Economic Policy Review claiming that the performance of Milwaukee’s public schools (measured in terms of test scores per dollar of spending) improved quite dramatically during the heat of the battle over vouchers (in the late 90’s), and that the gains of that time do not seem to have fallen back (though they have plateaued).

She attributes the gains to the voucher program, though she doesn’t distinguish between the effects of the internal market between schools that the voucher program introduced and the effects of the political fall out on making the school district administration more accountable. She’s entitled to attribute the gain to vouchers because she compares Milwaukee Public Schools with comparable Wisconsin school districts which were similarly effected by the changes in funding wrought by the State equalization formula. There are interesting methodological questions here. For example, if you remove the 1997-8 school year data from the analysis it would look quite different, and less well disposed to choice. And the aforementioned distinction between political and market competition is significant: if the gains were entirely the result of administrators getting their acts together then there might be other, less disruptive, ways of getting the gains. So the paper is not perfect.

But I point it out for two reasons. First, it’s a wonderful paper for non-economists to read – a model of someone who can write simply and clearly, but is sensitive to numerous complexities. Second, because vouchers and choice are increasingly hard for the left in the US to dismiss. The second best objection to well-designed and targeted voucher programs is that they leave the children remaining in the public schools worse off. If that objection can be met, progressives are left only with the best objection – that they will set in train a dynamic that will undermine the principle of public schooling. But in America, where public schooling is savagely unjust in its internal workings, that objection rings a bit hollow unless coupled with a substantial and politically feasible plan for improving the public schools which the least advantaged Americans attend.



MQ 04.22.04 at 5:36 am

On the one hand, Caroline Hoxby is an exceptionally talented and thoughtful economist. On the other, it will be a cold day in hell before she publishes anything that makes voucher choice look bad. Not saying I distrust her…not exactly…but she definitely has her beliefs on these issues and they are strong. She’d never consciously fabricate in any way, but econometrics is actually a rather subjective field, as anyone who has practiced it knows.

I would trust the Mathematica random assignment study on New York City voucher students before hers. These findings were actually not incompatible with hers, but were more mixed.

Also good to remember that the systemic effects of a large scale voucher program can be expected to differ greatly from the local effects of a more limited program. A great deal depends on how funding for the vouchers are designed and how voucher schools are policed. The various hidden agendas behind vouchers makes me believe that the system would not be designed very progressively or regulated very well.


sd 04.22.04 at 5:55 am

I myself have long been a ridiculously ardent supporter of school vouchers – and no, tinfoil hatters, I don’t secretly want to destroy public education (nor, for that matter, does any other voucher supporter that I’ve ever discussed the matter with).

I’ve also long thought that virtually any of the common objections raised to school vouchers can be dismissed by posing a simple rhetorical question: would you, voucher opponent, also like to bar students at private universities from getting Pell Grants and Stafford Loans; would you like to bar faculty at private universities from receiving NSF and NIH research dollars?

So to your point about the “best” reason to oppose voucher – do you think that the public’s support for public universities is compromised by the fact that the state also pays for all or part of the private university educations of some students? That voters in Michigan are on a slippery slope to abandoning support for the UofM because many bright Michigan high schoolers choose to take their Pell Grant and Stafford Loan money to Northwestern or Notre Dame or U. Chicago? Please. America’s state-run universities are quite well funded (I’m sure many of this blog’s professorial readers will disagree, but I imagine they’d also disagree if funding were doubled, or tripled), largely I suspect because voters feel that they deliver an excellent teaching and research product, something that the public high schools, for example, can’t typically boast of.

And also, I’m sure that many strong social science findings evaporate when you selectively pull out of the data set the data that most strongly supports the finding. Yes, we should investigate outliers, but barring a good explanation of why the 1997 data should be tossed out, if the rest of the data is directionally consistent, I see no reason to doubt the study’s conclusions.

P.S. Lefties often say that the solution to bad schools is to de-couple school funding from local property taxes. I agree that that’s a good idea. So I’m willing to offer a hypothetical trade: I’ll support pooling all school funding at the state level and then distributing it on a student-by-student basis if you’ll support giving students vouchers that cover the full cost of a typical Catholic school in the community, the full amount being given to poor kids with the value tapering off as family income rises, effectivelt disappearing at some top income group.


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.22.04 at 6:19 am

Even if administrative gains are spurred by voucher competition, why would you assume that such a result could be duplicated in a non-competitive environment?

“Lefties often say that the solution to bad schools is to de-couple school funding from local property taxes.”

Yes it is an excellent idea. It is also the way it has been in most of the larger states for more than a decade. It hasn’t helped California much (to speak of the state in which I have the most experience.)


dsquared 04.22.04 at 6:59 am

In the UK, vastly increased school choice over the last ten years hasn’t had all that much effect, or has it?


Ray 04.22.04 at 8:34 am

In the UK, one effect of vastly improved school choice is that tax-payers are funding schools that teach creationism.


laura, Apt. 11d 04.22.04 at 1:11 pm

The voucher battle lines don’t fall neatly in a left-right sort of thing. I’ve been planning a long post on this. Maybe next week. Briefly…

There have been a lot of lefties interested in vouchers historically. Christopher Jencks had a voucher experiment in the late 60s. Sugarman and other school equity people have been big proponents. When vouchers are framed in terms of equity, rather than fainess, then a lot of liberals come on board. And when vouchers are framed in terms of helping out poor kids in the inner city, then a lot of moderates are into it also.

Also, many conservatives have voted against vouchers. Esp. if those conservatives happen to live in suburban or rural areas.

Interest trumps ideology on this issue.


Nat Whilk 04.22.04 at 3:12 pm

Ray wrote:

“In the UK, one effect of vastly improved school choice is that tax-payers are funding schools that teach creationism.”

Thanks for the link. This sentence caught my eye:

“The trouble for critics of Emmanuel College is that it is one of the highest-performing state schools in the country, consistently coming near the top of GCSE and A-level league tables (in science subjects as well as others) despite the relative poverty of many of its pupils.”



Matthew Yglesias 04.22.04 at 3:14 pm

You can’t compare this survey to the Mathematica NYC study — they’re not looking at comparable issues.


harry 04.22.04 at 3:21 pm

sd, you misinterpret completely the thrust of my post (or I misinterpret completely the thrust of your comment). Saying that argument A is the best argument for position P is not the same as endorsing it. The compromise you offer isn’t even a compromise to me — if I thought it would have the right outcomes and that there were no better feasible alternatives I’d support it without feeling that I was compromising on anything. I’m pretty close to thinking that, in fact, and have no problems in principle with state funding of religious schools. What you propose is many times better (from an egalitarian perspective) than what the US has currently. This is why, as Laura says, choice is not a neat left/right issue, and why wealthy conservative voters, especially if they use suburban public schools, oppose choice. (They don’t completely oppose choice of course, because they strongly support neighbourhood schooling, which gives them choice, but denies it to the least advantaged). Over the past 15 years Gallup shows consitently that in the US black, low income, voters support choice and vouchers, and white, wealthy, voters oppose them. Similarly with choice in general.

BUT, mq is absolutely right that ‘A great deal depends on how funding for the vouchers are designed and how voucher schools are policed’. Not, in fact, a great deal, but everything. And Daniel is right, because of what mq says, that choice in Britain has not made much difference. The UK choice scheme is not designed to benefit the least advantaged — the benefits to the least advantaged within the system are a hold-over from the previous regime and not associated with choice. Some people (me, and people not distantly related to me) argue that schools should no longer be allowed to select students and/or that low income children should bring with them 3 times the funding that middle-high income children bring, at least in places like London where the admissions regime is highly inegalitarian.

I think the jury is out on mq’s conjecture that
bq. The various hidden agendas behind vouchers makes me believe that the system would not be designed very progressively or regulated very well.

In fact I think there’s a tendency for vouchers to be more progressively designed, at least, than other, less controversial, choice mechanisms. Inter-district choice (so called ‘open enrollment’) is often highly inegalitarian because it usually gives preferecne to in-district students, and is only used by already-advantaged out-of-district students. Charters are extremely variable in how inegalitarian their effects are. Because vouchers are so obviously threatening to the principle of public schooling as we know it and the agendas of interested parties, it is easier for liberal legislators to amend them in an egalitarian direction. And because they are being used by Republicans as a wedge issue to attract black voters, the Republicans who trumpet them have an incentive to design them for the benefit of low-income and especially blac children. I think, though, this is something on which reasonable leftists disagree. But I would say that, wouldn’t I, as I have the dissenting view.
One more thing: no-one, but no-one should expect any school reform idea to be the solution to all the problems in the schools (including the dramatically increased funding that liberals like to call for). Even the best school reform is tinkering at the margins. Eliminating child-poverty, now that would make a big difference.


Ray 04.22.04 at 3:24 pm

“The trouble for critics of Emmanuel College is that it is one of the highest-performing state schools in the country, consistently coming near the top of GCSE and A-level league tables (in science subjects as well as others) despite the relative poverty of many of its pupils.”

It can select its pupils, so it gets kids that do well in the 11-plus, and can kick out students who don’t do well/are disruptive. This is, I’d guess, the single most important factor, and its one that (obviously) can’t be applied across the board.

Emmanuel gets money from the state, but it also gets money from business, so it can afford better equipment and more highly paid teachers than state schools. Given that Emmanuel is something of a test case, which will play some part in deciding whether public/private partnerships in schools will continue (particularly partnerships with that company) its not surprising that its well-funded.


Thorley Winston 04.22.04 at 3:27 pm

Ray wrote:

In the UK, one effect of vastly improved school choice is that tax-payers are funding schools that teach creationism.

Personally, I think that creationism is a lot of rot but no more so than most of the environmentalist, multi-cultural, and feminist nonsense that has been introduced into the government schools by many of the people who get apoplectic over creationism and school prayers. IMNHO the solution is to leave as much of the decision making about these issues to parents and local school authorities as possible rather than risking a one-size fits all system imposed by a central/national authority. Better that some schools experiment and risk getting it wrong (or getting it right and improve things) at the behest of the people most interested in their children’s welfare (parents) then some educrat try to experiment with the whole system and screw it up for everyone.


harry 04.22.04 at 3:31 pm

From what I know about the case Ray’s provided at least a big part of the explanation. The other part of it may be (I’m speculating wildly here) that the extremely charismatic head, and the particular tilt of the school mission, has attracted a particular kind of parent and a large pool of a particular kind of teacher from which the head can make good choices. So the school may actually be ‘better’ but not in a way that can be generally replicated. It is a bad idea to make any kind of generalisation based on the performance of students in a particular school, and even on the performance of the school, in the absence of lots more information about other schools in the area etc.


Ray 04.22.04 at 3:49 pm

Sadly, too many parents aren’t that interested in their children’s welfare. And some aren’t very good judges of what’s best for their children – they want their children to be taught ‘the truth’, but they don’t know what the truth is.
The purpose of public education is to protect children from the ignorance or negligence of their parents.


Rv. Agnos 04.22.04 at 3:54 pm

Are there any studies that show that educational results are significantly worse under a school choice program?

If not, then I’m wondering why choice programs should not be the default, with limitations on choice only in situations where it is being applied unfairly.

The statement that this is not the “perfect paper” is certainly true, but why is that the standard for a program that, at the worst, has been shown to cause no harm, provides new choices to parents and students, and in most cases does not cost any new money, since it only diverts money from public to private schools.

Where is the open-minded liberal voice claiming, “Yes, I am open to the viewpoint that school choice is wrong, but will support choice until that perfect paper is presented.”


harry 04.22.04 at 4:07 pm

rv.agnos, Do I not count as a liberal? (I’m willing not to — I think of myself as a left-wing social-democrat, but always thought that in America liberal was just a term that covered everyone to the left of center).

To repeat, all school systems involve choice. They differ in who they give it to, and how much they give. The US neighbourhood schooling system gives it to the wealthy. That’s why they like it. It doesn’t give it to the poor. My view is that everyone should have it (my view is also that we should get rid of poverty, so I’d be happy to restrict it to the non-poor if there were no poor). In such a system the rich would have less choice than they currently have. I see no problem with this, as long as regulations are in place to prevent schools from exercising choice, and to ensure that the advantaged do not crowd the disadvantaged out of desirable schools. And I regard the existing system of savagely unequally funded neighbourhood schooling as one that guarantees to the advantaged the abaility to crowd the disadvantaged out of desirable schools.


Laura, 11d 04.22.04 at 4:13 pm

I have a huge interest in school vouchers. but the evaluation stuff has left me very dissatisfied. First of all, the number of students in these programs are very small. It’s hard to make generalizations. Secondly, it has been so politicized. Paul Peterson is always going to find that vouchers benefit students and the studies funded by the unions will always find that vouchers have no impact. Really shows the limits of the so-called scientific methodology of the social sciences.

I’ve been more interested in the politics of vouchers leading up to implementation.

Actually, I think that the power behind the voucher movement is waning. If you look at the big voucher proponents in our country, like bill Bennett, they are putting their efforts behind technology. They are setting up computer based education programs that can be adopted by home schoolers and independent schools. These programs are low cost and eliminate the need for highly trained teachers.


rv.agnos 04.22.04 at 4:33 pm

harry, you certainly qualify as a “liberal,” although you don’t have a vote in Congress. The implication I got from your comment, though, especially, “‘A great deal depends on how funding for the vouchers are designed and how voucher schools are policed’. Not, in fact, a great deal, but everything.” was that vouchers may be supported when imposed under ideal conditions, if they are not done perfectly they are worthless, so we should take this study with a grain of salt. My approach is that vouchers/choice are intuitively valuable, and would want to see evidence against it.

A few months ago, Congress approved a school choice program in Washington, D.C. It was a small pilot program, and used new appropriations (not money taken from the public schools), and was aimed only at children attending failing schools.

It passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 205-203 with only 4 Democrats voting for it — Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, Ralph M. Hall of Texas, William O. Lipinski of Illinois and Gene Taylor of Mississippi (and 11 Republicans voting against it).

After it passed, Eleanor Holmes Norton (non-voting Rep. from D.C.) offered an amendment to reduce appropriations to D.C. by enough money to leave the program unfunded. It failed to pass following a tie vote. (203-203).

The hatred of vouchers by Democrats is visceral (Holmes Norton thinks it is better her District have no money, than it have money that will be used to take poor kids out of failing public schools!) and there is less dissent among elected leaders than you imply, although there is certainly dissent among the electorate.


Laura 04.22.04 at 4:41 pm

DC is an unfair example to look for partisanship or lack of it. Republicans and Democrats can afford to be ideologically pure, since none of them will be elected by the residents of DC. Instead look to the states.

In PA, where vouchers were narrowly defeated, they had a large number of Democrats from Philadelphia who were in favor of vouchers. And a number of Republicans from rural areas opposed it, since vouchers would have no benefit for them and because they didn’t want to spend one extra cent on money going to the city.


harry 04.22.04 at 4:49 pm

rv: Yes, I realise that liberal legislators are more unified on this than I suggested (though, as I said above, much more lax about other, more inegalitarian, versions of choice). Though Laura’s example is good, and the same was, of course, true in Wisconsin when the Milwaukee scheme was passed. What you failed to add was that numerous of the people who voted against the DC program send or sent their own children to very expensive elite private schools. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. My point was that voters are not with them on this, as the Republican advocates of choice know.

I’m sorry you interpreted my comment as meaning that ‘vouchers may be supported when imposed under ideal conditions, if they are not done perfectly they are worthless’. I don’t think that. What I should have added is that the specific design of voucher schemes and alternatives to them, including the status quo, matter. So, a badly designed voucher scheme is worse than a well-designed status quo. A flawed voucher scheme is better than a very flawed status quo. Etc. My point was directed at a certain kind of voucher supporter who just thinks they are always good, and is not interested in the details. I spend most of my time discussing this issue with people who, equally wrongly, think they are always bad, no matter the details. But in the UK (where I direct a gfair bit of my attention) there is a growing band of ‘voucher’ supporters who invoke the Milwaukee scheme in support of what would, in effect, be a subsidy for wealthy people to send their kids to the elite schools they already afford. No sensivity at all to details.

I agree with Laura about the disappointing nature of the evaluation debate (though would speak up for John Witte’s excellent and non-partisan book on Milwaukee). But, trained as a philospher not a social-scientist, I love reading these detailed evaluations despite that… I hadn’t noticed the withdrawal from vouchers, Laura, but now you mention it it kind of hits me in the eye. Interesting.


dsquared 04.22.04 at 5:56 pm

If not, then I’m wondering why choice programs should not be the default, with limitations on choice only in situations where it is being applied unfairly

Basically, there’s non-negligible overhead cost associated with a vouchers program, plus the uncertainty makes forward planning of school provision difficult.


Bill Carone 04.22.04 at 7:40 pm


“Some people (me, and people not distantly related to me) argue that schools should no longer be allowed to select students”

All schools, or just taxpayer funded ones? What about criminal students?

“The US neighbourhood schooling system gives it to the wealthy.”

I can’t make out what you are saying here; does the “neighborhood schooling system” just mean that particular neighborhoods go to particular schools, so the wealthy can just buy their way into any neighborhood and school they want? Do you mean that the funding for a school comes from the neighborhood, so wealthy neighborhoods have better schools?Or do you mean something different?


harry 04.22.04 at 8:01 pm

Bill, this is where context makes a difference. The first quote was supposed to apply to state schools only in the UK context (which is where I’ve proposed it, and even then only in London). Schools admit at age 11 there, so criminality isn’t a big issue. I’d be happy for them to select against (serious) criminals later on, but I suspect the person related to me who also advocates this idea wouldn’t (but I am not his mouthpiece).

Neighbourhood schooling is the system whereby children attend their local school. In the US, but not the UK, it is combined with local, and highly unequal, funding.


snorlax 04.22.04 at 8:36 pm

you comments about the research’s author is interesting. I live in DC which is going though its own voucher debate, and I interviewed for an apartment with someone close to the issues, both locally and nationally. She said that she was hoping that DC’s program would go through so she could produce the study on it with a colleague of her’ s at some NY university (I can’t remember which one). I remember her saying that she and her colleague was firmly anti voucher and I asked her if she thought that would compromise her research and she said no, but the would never put something out that be considered favorable to vouchers…


Mcwop 04.22.04 at 9:07 pm

Some pretty broad statements on unequal school funding in the U.S. Here in Maryland the funding is pretty equal across districts. Baltimore City has higher school funding than neighboring wealthy counties. The cost of living in Baltimore is not more than many surrounding counties.

City students perform poorly because of rampant neighborhood crime (Crime which city leaders continuously fake plans to address), uninterested parents, and inept public school administrators. It is not because of a lack of money (in fact the school budget keeps increasing although enrollment is decreasing).

Link to info:
Data link


push 04.22.04 at 9:56 pm

I understand Carol Propper at Bristol has a paper coming out on the effects of school choice on performance which show that there has been no attributable difference.

The issue of whether, if vouchers had no inequitable effects they should be supported by the left divides me.
If I thought choice was simply about equal but diverse schools that would be fine. But choice through vouchers is not that.

Educational attainment is dependent not just on school but upon other factors, family and community-related that joined up local services could address. Enhancing pupil mobility would make that more difficult.

Secondly, it’s my old fashioned belief that the service ethos of teachers and heads lends itself much more to collaboration than competition.


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.22.04 at 10:30 pm

I think quite a few of you guys are overstating the problem of unequal funding in a district. In most of the larger states this has been taken care of through one mechanism or another. Are you reading old studies perhaps? I know that California switched over to equalized funding in the late 1980s for example.


push 04.22.04 at 10:47 pm

Iink here to the Funding Gap 2003 report. It’s pretty scary differentials


MQ 04.23.04 at 12:03 am

Matt Yglesias was right that the Mathematica study was really not at all comparable to what Hoxby was trying to do in this somewhat rhetorical review article. Would have helped if I had actually read the article first rather than assuming its contents from some other stuff of hers I had seen.

Anyway, to respond to Harry’s very good points above, there is no theoretical reason at all why a “liberally designed” voucher program would not meet liberal purposes better than the current system. Liberally designed means highly progressive vouchers and limits on the ability of schools to screen out students. But I wonder if he quite appreciates how tough it would be to get that. In particular, the ability to control the makeup of their student body is critical to what private schools are about, for legitimate effiency as well as segregation reasons. And progressivism has been a tough sell in the U.S. recently.


MQ 04.23.04 at 12:17 am

and P.S. — yes, one should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. Perhaps an only somewhat liberal voucher program could improve on our current system in the worst inner city districts (important point). But could it be held to those districts? And I believe that voucher proponents often overestimate how bad the schools are even in the bad districts — or to be more exact, how much of the poor quality of those schools can be attributed to the very difficult student body that they have to work with, which would be a challenge for any school. Also, a voucher program where the quality of private contract providers was not well policed could very easily be worse than our current system. See some of the charter school scandals if you don’t believe me.

We now have a fair amount of worldwide experience with voucher-type systems. Hard to tell whether they have improved things or not, but it’s difficult to argue that they have produced transformative positive results.


Brian Wilder 04.23.04 at 3:06 am

Traditionally, schools have been organized around a system in which student achievement has been measured, and school achievement has not. The “best” schools are the ones, which attract the best students, not the ones that actually do the best job of educating. A voucher program, married to serious testing of school achievement, could work a revolution, by focusing school administration on substantive educational achievement, while removing the enormous regulatory burden. Don’t count on it, though.

A conservative academic, who praises vouchers, while poo-poo’ing serious testing, however, is probably engaged in undermining public education, and shifting resources from poor to rich.


maurinsky 04.23.04 at 4:21 am

I live in Connecticut, where there are vast divides between schools in the suburbs and schools in the city, in academic achievement, test scores, graduation/drop-out rates, etc.

There are so many social problems (divorce/single parent homes, drug/alcohol abuse, poverty/hunger, crime rates, etc.) that feed into these divides that I doubt simply moving children from the city schools to the much better performing suburban schools will really help these kids achieve more.

Still, something has to be done. Maybe vouchers will help, but I would like to see a well designed plan before I would vote for throwing money into vouchers.


carla 04.23.04 at 3:45 pm

One of the things I find most distressing about this whole conversation is that it elides the problems facing public schools and the people who attend and teach at them. A country–or locality–that does not maintain a strong commitment to a high-quality, free public education is willing to write off some of its citizens. We are failing in that, in many places, for many reasons. But the solution is not to further fragment the funding and further reduce the commitment. And I also believe that (a) teachers should be highly qualified and well-compensated (right now, the best way for a good teacher to make more money is to become an administrator, not stay a teacher), (b) teachers should have more say in teaching, (c) school should not have a three-month break in the summer, and (d) there should be some basic national standards (reading level; mathematical competency; historical knowledge, for example) that all students should learn. There’s plenty of room for local/state variation after that. Once we have achieved that, once we have built and put in place the mechanisms for maintaining a public education system throughout the country, then we can talk about vouchers and “school choice.”

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