School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience [NOOK Book]


This timely book refocuses the debate about school choice programs with a nonpartisan assessment of the nation’s largest and longest-running private school voucher program—the high profile Milwaukee experiment—and finds that the system undercuts the promise of school choice.

The authors argue that the Milwaukee experiment has not resulted in the one element necessary for school choice to be effective: an accountability system in which good schools thrive and poor schools close. ...

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School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience

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This timely book refocuses the debate about school choice programs with a nonpartisan assessment of the nation’s largest and longest-running private school voucher program—the high profile Milwaukee experiment—and finds that the system undercuts the promise of school choice.

The authors argue that the Milwaukee experiment has not resulted in the one element necessary for school choice to be effective: an accountability system in which good schools thrive and poor schools close. They show that most ingredients of a robust market are missing. Well-informed consumers (parents) are not the norm. State fiscal incentives are counterproductive, and competition among public and choice schools is difficult to discern. They conclude that school choice could succeed if certain conditions were met, and they offer guidelines to strengthen accountability and repair the voucher system.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300127973
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 7 MB

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School Choice and the Question of Accountability

The Milwaukee Experience
By Emily Van Dunk Anneliese M. Dickman

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Public Policy Forum, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09942-3

Chapter One

The Limitations of Parental Accountability

In the end, every child in a bad situation must be given a better choice, because when it comes to our children, failure is not an option. -PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH (February 27, 2001)

Vouchers work. They don't hurt taxpayers and they encourage public schools to do better. -JOHN NORQUIST, mayor of Milwaukee (January 30, 2001)

Choice ... has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways. -JOHN CHUBB AND TERRY MOE (1990)

Supporters of publicly funded private school choice are on a crusade to change education in the United States. They are struggling against a public school system that has a monopoly on education, assigning children to schools and controlling the money. Theoretically, because public schools dominate the provision of education, they have no incentive to improve. Abysmal proficiency levels and increasing dropout rates are met with a shrug and a sigh from some public school bureaucrats, who continue torequest larger salaries and greater benefits despite declining student performance. Champions of school choice argue that what is needed to improve education is competition, along with the free market principles of supply and demand. The demand will come from parents who select schools based on their children's needs. Schools will either meet these needs or fail. Choice advocates are actively campaigning across the United States. Dozens and perhaps hundreds of organizations have emerged to lobby for choice, such as CEO America, the Council for American Private Education (CAPE), and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

On the other side of this issue we see matched intensity. Teachers' unions feel threatened by these efforts and are fighting against choice by matching and often surpassing the lobbying efforts of choice supporters. The stakes over control of education are so high and the struggle is so heated that we should anticipate no lessening of this controversy.

Lost in this battle is a discussion about how school choice should be implemented. This is unfortunate because, as with any major policy initiative, implementation matters. The major premise of school choice is that parents rather than the government or civil servants should be responsible for holding schools accountable. Under this scenario, the empowering of parents is the key to improving education. Through their vouchers parents, not elected officials or bureaucrats, will decide the fate of schools. A school's success will depend on its ability to capture enough of the market to remain open. School choice will break the monopoly on the control of public schools by opening the doors to competition. In those communities that allow it to prevail, competitive pressure, unlike traditional top-down bureaucratic accountability, will result in improved education.

This vision of parental choice assumes that parents' actions are a reliable accountability mechanism, one that will result in the demise of schools that cannot attract parents and the success of those that can. Three requirements must be met for parental accountability to work. First, by choosing one school over another, parents send a message about what they believe is important for their children's education, and this message must be heard. Second, because parents' choices are backed by public money (vouchers), they will have a financial impact on both the gaining and losing schools. Third, when teachers and administrators recognize that they are in a competitive economic environment, they will try to gain market share. In the parental choice program, accountability depends on the link between schools and parents' actions. If this link is missing, parental empowerment and the promise of school choice are sorely diminished.

In the city of Milwaukee today, we have the nation's oldest and only large-scale voucher program, one that will test whether school accountability should rest solely in the hands of parents. After studying the Milwaukee voucher program for five years, the Public Policy Forum has found that the reality of parental choice accountability is falling far short of its promise. Relying on a detailed analysis of numerous datasets, including student enrollment, school characteristics, school startups and closures, parent, teacher, administrator, and taxpayer surveys, and school finances, we conclude that the system as it is currently designed does not accomplish what it is supposed to. Market forces do not or can not provide the rewards or exact the penalties expected. In real life, the school choices of parents do not result in accountability for schools. In the absence of effective accountability in a choice system, the inadequate public education that vouchers are supposed to improve may be replicated. The result, ironically, is that the very people choice schools are supposed to help-poor families-are betrayed, as are the taxpayers who are footing the bill.

The Promise of School Choice

School choice offers the promise of changing the face of education by placing the responsibility for school selection solely in the hands of parents rather than relying on a traditional system in which attendance zones are used to assign children to a public school and a limited choice is available only to parents with sufficient income. There are many forms of school choice, but the one that has captured the most attention and incited such controversy is that in which taxpayer-funded vouchers are provided to parents who choose to send their children to private school. Over the past half century, several prominent scholars have raised the idea that choice can improve our nation's public education system.

The economist Milton Friedman, writing in the 1950s and 1960s, promoted the idea of granting public money in the form of vouchers to parents to allow their children to attend any school they choose. Friedman believed that this system would encourage a variety of schools to open up to meet parent demand. He argued that the competition that would result among schools through a free market would be more efficient in meeting consumer demand than the current system of public education (1962: 89, 91). Almost forty years later, in an op-ed piece dated September 28, 2000, Friedman concludes that America needs school vouchers to improve society as a whole: "Failing schools are not the only reason for the parlous state of the inner cities, but they have played an important role. Far and away the biggest winner from an educational revolution would be society as a whole. A better-schooled work force promises higher productivity and more rapid economic growth." Friedman also claims that the evidence from Milwaukee and Cleveland supports this belief. In the same article Friedman notes, "I have nothing but good things to say about voucher programs, like those in Milwaukee and Cleveland, that are limited to a small number of low-income participants. They greatly benefit the limited number of students who receive vouchers, enable fuller use to be made of existing excellent private schools, and provide a useful stimulus to government schools. They also demonstrate the inefficiency of government schools by providing a superior education at less than half the per pupil cost."

A decade ago John Chubb and Terry Moe revived interest in the benefits of choice when they asserted that people should view choice as a panacea. They concluded that choice has the capacity by itself to bring about the kind of transformation in education that has not been possible with other reforms. They believed that by placing the responsibility for choosing in the hands of parents, we would see drastic improvement in education (1990: 217). Ten years later, in an opinion article in the May 9, 1999, edition of the Washington Post, Moe declared, "School vouchers offer an unprecedented opportunity to improve educational opportunities for children in our inner cities." He concluded by noting that he is convinced that the fight for inner-city vouchers will succeed. Vouchers, he believes, will bring new opportunities to millions of disadvantaged children and new vitality to urban public schools-which will have to perform at higher standards to keep students.

In two battles over choice that occurred in Michigan and California in the elections of November 2000, statements by choice supporters echoed the earlier promises proffered by Friedman, Chubb, and Moe. Dick DeVos, president of Alticor, Inc. (formerly known as Amway Corporation) and a financial supporter of the choice campaign in Michigan, maintained in a Fox News story of October 21, 2000, that in education just as in business, competition breeds improvement. DeVos declared, "When there is a choice, that's going to drive schools-public schools, charter schools, non-public schools, all of them-to be better, to earn that parent's choice." According to a report in Education Week on November 15, 2000, California's most prominent backer of vouchers, Timothy Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, funded the California voucher initiative to the tune of at least $23 million. A Los Angeles Times story on July 26, 2000, described Draper's view: that vouchers are a way for children to escape inferior neighborhood schools for the new, challenging private schools he believes entrepreneurs will open.

Need for Evidence

Although boldly stated, these promises are fundamentally about improving the education system through competition. Competition is created by placing accountability in the hands of parents, whose decisions have an impact on the school system. Bold claims regarding the impacts of choice can be substantiated only with hard evidence.

In the latter half of the 1990s and still today, scholars focused attention on analyzing the impact of private school choice programs (Greene, Peterson, and Du 1997; Green, Howell, and Peterson 1997; Howell and Peterson 2002; Levin 1998; Metcalf 1998a, 1999; Metcalf et al. 1998b; Peterson, Howell, and Greene 1999; Rouse 1998a, 1998b; Witte 1995, 2000). Most of this research centered on the specific achievement gains that private choice students experience over their counterparts in public schools. To date, however, there is uncertainty over just what these gains have been. The conflicting findings of these studies appear to be the result of using different controls or comparison groups and different methods of controlling for family backgrounds and student ability (Rouse 1998b). Whether one judges these studies to be methodologically sound often depends on one's support for school choice (see Fuller, January 22, 1997, Wall Street Journal; and Greene, March 17, 1998, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). The intensity of the debate has not diminished, as witnessed by the heated discussion over a voucher study released in August 2000. The study, as reported in the New York Times on September 15, 2000, was led by Paul E. Peterson and examined the impact of private vouchers in New York and Washington, D.C. Peterson concluded that there were significant test-score differences between African-American students who received vouchers and those who remained in public schools. The company that gathered the data, however, stated that these claims have been exaggerated.

More recent research has examined other effects of parental choice, particularly how choice as a market system affects the public school system. As Hess points out, one of the most commonly advanced arguments for school choice is that markets will force public schools to become more efficient and effective (Hess 2000: 3). Hoxby, however, examines school productivity, or achievement per dollar spent, in light of competition. She finds that public schools in Milwaukee, Arizona, and Michigan increased their productivity when they were exposed to competition from either vouchers or charter schools (2001). Hess and his coauthors examined the effects of vouchers on the public school systems in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Their studies produced mixed findings. In general, they found that competition had not had any systemic effects on teaching and learning (Hess 2000; Hess, Maranto, and Milliman 2000). Overall, the research on the impacts of vouchers on public school systems found that the financial formulas that accompany these policies protect the traditional public school districts from competition (Teske and Schneider 2000; Stuart-Wells 2000).

John Witte of the Robert M. LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written the most comprehensive work on the operation of a school voucher program. His book analyzed the early years of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), from 1990 to 1995. The program provided private school vouchers to low-income families who resided in the city of Milwaukee. At the time of the study religious schools did not participate. There were only twenty-three voucher schools, and voucher recipients reached a maximum of 1,450, less than 1 percent of the total school enrollment in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Witte was appointed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to evaluate MPCP during the first five years of the program, comparing academic achievement, attendance, dropout rates, pupils suspended or expelled, and parental involvement. Witte consolidated his findings in The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America's First Voucher Program (2000).

Witte demonstrated that during the early years of MPCP, participants generally mirrored those in the public schools. As stated by Witte, "In nearly all respects, evidence from the Milwaukee voucher program leads to the conclusion that the creaming of students in limited and targeted voucher programs can be avoided" (Witte 2000: 73). He also found that choice student mobility was high and that the academic achievement of students receiving vouchers was not significantly higher than that of students who did not receive vouchers. In addition, he found that parents were satisfied with the program (2000).

Witte's research on the early years of vouchers provided critical evidence regarding who participates in the voucher program, why they participate, and what achievement gains, if any, voucher students have over their counterparts in public schools. The very early stages of the program, however, involved only four private schools. Because of this limitation many feel that there is a need to examine voucher programs that are much larger in scope (Moe 1995).

The Milwaukee Experience

Since Witte's analysis the voucher program in Milwaukee, now in its thirteenth year, has grown dramatically with the addition of private religious schools. The substantial size of Milwaukee's voucher program allows us to examine more fully the impact of vouchers on the education system by introducing competition.

There were 107 schools registered in the voucher program, with a full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment of more than ten thousand students in the school year 2001-02. The current size reflects the inclusion of religious schools but is still below the statutory limit of 15 percent of MPS enrollment, or about fifteen thousand students. Full-time enrollment in the voucher program has increased 500 percent since the inclusion of religious schools (fig. 1.1).

The ten thousand full-time students in MPCP surpasses the enrollment of 97 percent of the districts in the state of Wisconsin. Only eleven school districts in the state have more students than MPCP. The total MPCP enrollment also surpasses the national average public school district enrollment. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for 2000-01, the average U.S. school district enrollment was 3,179.

The voucher amount equals $5,553 per full-time student for the 2001-02 school year. The DPI estimates that in that year, $56 million was paid to private schools for the education of voucher students. This total amount exceeds the state aid received by 98 percent of the districts. According to the state Legislative Audit Bureau, the 2001-02 public voucher payment, in combination with the expenditures during the first ten years, totals $197 million.


Excerpted from School Choice and the Question of Accountability by Emily Van Dunk Anneliese M. Dickman Copyright © 2003 by Public Policy Forum, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The Limitations of Parental Accountability 1
Ch. 2 Parental Choice, Parental Power, and Accountability 22
Ch. 3 The Response of Public Schools to Competition 46
Ch. 4 What Parents Know: An Examination of Informed Consumers 74
Ch. 5 Shopping for Schools 96
Ch. 6 Do the Dollars Follow the Child? 121
Ch. 7 Choice School Accountability: A Consensus of Views 147
Ch. 8 Unleashing the Power of School Choice Through Accountability 178
Notes 191
References 207
Index 217
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