Milwaukee School Choice Program Sets Example for California, Nation

Low-income Milwaukee students using vouchers to attend independent schools have a graduation rate 18 percent higher than students in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), according to Graduation Rates for Choice and Public School Students in Milwaukee, 2003-2008, a new report by John Robert Warren of the University of Minnesota. California would do well to emulate the 20-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the country’s first publicly-funded voucher program.

Eligible students must live in Milwaukee, and their family income cannot exceed 175 percent of the federal poverty level ($39,630 for a family of four in 2010-11). Today, more than 20,000 students are using scholarships worth up to $6,442 to attend 111 independent sectarian and nonsectarian schools citywide.

The report finds that if Milwaukee public schools matched the graduation rate of voucher schools, 3,352 more students, 18 percent, would have earned their diplomas from 2003 to 2008. This finding is even more significant since Milwaukee public school students do not all come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds—unlike students using vouchers.

The cost to taxpayers for supporting a Milwaukee voucher student is also less than half of what it would cost to send him or her to a Milwaukee public school, $6,442 compared to $14,011. Moreover, the economic impact of 3,352 more high-school graduates would translate into an additional $21.2 million in personal income and $3.6 million in extra tax revenue each year. Consider what results like these could mean for California.

If schools in Fresno, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco/Oakland, and San Jose each graduated 1,000 of their combined 40,000 class of 2008 dropouts, the combined economic impact would approach half a billion dollars annually based on data from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

High school graduates from those metropolitan areas would earn an estimated $85 million more annually from having a high-school diploma. Those graduates would likely spend an estimated $7 million more each year buying cars, and they would also be able to buy homes worth nearly $280 million more than what they would likely have spent without a diploma, based on combined Alliance estimates. The communities where those graduates live would also benefit.

The shared annual economic impact of 5,000 more graduates in those five major metropolitan areas would include $104 million more in combined Gross Regional Product, $12.2 million in additional state and local tax revenue, and those graduates would help support 520 new jobs.

Last year, experts testified before the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee that the high-school dropout epidemic is one of the greatest threats to national economic growth and competitiveness. “The crisis we’re seeing in our nation’s high schools is real, it’s urgent, and it must be fixed,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the committee. “It’s become increasingly clear that addressing this dropout crisis is one of the most important things we can do to turn our economy around and regain our competitive footing for good.”

As California anticipates up to $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds, it is worth keeping in mind that, as Alliance for Excellent Education president and the former Governor of West Virginia Bob Wise noted, “the enormous cost of bailing out the banks, financial institutions, the auto industry, and AIG is less than the economic cost of just five years of dropouts in the United States. The ultimate economic stimulus package is a diploma.”

Programs such as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have a proven track record and serve as a model for California and the nation. Every student deserves the chance to be a success story instead of a drop-out statistic. Rather than sacrificing California students to assigned schools that are slow to reform, policy makers should enact a scholarship program like Milwaukee’s for any student at risk of dropping out.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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