Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fighting an uphill battle

It always feels a bit discomforting to say, "Race and economic status are highly correlated to academic achievement." Children can change neither their race nor their income; a statement like the one above can feel like saying these children also cannot improve their academic achievement. But when confronted with the lackluster-to-dismal achievement data of many Milwaukee schools, where the race and income patterns are so stark, its hard to avoid making that statement.

As the Forum's recent report on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program found, these patterns appear among private school students as well as public school students. In both the public and private sectors in Milwaukee, there are very few schools enrolling predominantly minority and low-income students producing high test scores. (Even among the suburban public schools with fewer minority or low-income children, we've found that as those populations have grown, aggregate test scores have declined.) And while the private school data are new, are they really news, considering how entrenched the pattern has been in the public schools?

What is news is the fact that, while the nation's schools have made some progress in closing the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap has grown significantly. A recent New York Times story highlights the research of Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, who analyzed data from 12 national studies starting in 1960 and ending in 2007 and found that while the average black-white racial achievement gap has shrunk in half since the 1960s, the gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families has grown 40% in that time, and is now twice the size of the racial achievement gap.

Schools with low-income students in their charge, whether public or private, are fighting against a nationwide, decades-long trend. While several of these schools, on an individual level, have stellar outcomes, educators are still hunting for the best strategy to improve outcomes system-wide. The hunt requires even more urgency now--the recession is creating more, not fewer, poor families.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Most new voucher users already were enrolled in private schools

The Forum's 14th annual census of schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) finds that voucher use by Milwaukee students grew 10% in 2011-12 to 23,198 voucher students, reversing last year’s enrollment decline. In addition, the data indicate that most voucher students are attending hyper-segregated schools that have low reading and math proficiency rates.

The dramatic increase in voucher use is likely due to changes to the program in the most recent state budget, which allowed schools outside Milwaukee to join MPCP and expanded eligibility to include families at higher income levels. As a result, more than 2,200 additional students are using vouchers worth $6,442 each, increasing the program’s cost by $14.2 million.

Most of the new voucher users appear to have already been enrolled in private school. In 56 schools, the number of new voucher users exceed the growth in total enrollment in the school, while in 13 schools voucher growth and enrollment growth were equal. Over the past 10 years, total enrollment in the schools participating in the program has grown by roughly 5,300 students, while the number of voucher users has increased over twice as much.

More students are eligible for vouchers because the income limits for voucher were raised to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level, which means that a family of four earning up to $67,050 per year is now eligible. The median household income in Milwaukee is $35,921 per year. Under the new rules, once a student qualifies for a voucher, he or she remains eligible for all subsequent years, even if the family’s income grows.

The report also includes an analysis of the 2010-2011 state standardized test results of the participating schools, finding that performance among the MPCP schools varies widely. There are a few patterns in the data, however. Reading proficiency rates are higher, on the whole, than math proficiency rates. In addition, schools with fewer voucher users and fewer minority students tend to produce higher proficiency in both reading and math, as do the Catholic and Lutheran schools.

The poor test scores are likely related to the socio-economic and racial demographic make-up of the schools, which mirror the Milwaukee Public Schools, in the aggregate. Nearly half of all MPCP schools have student bodies that are at least 90% minority and/or 90% low income; 65% of all voucher users attend one of these schools.

The report also includes updated data on enrollment trends, schools gaining and losing the most MPCP students, and the aggregate high school drop-out rate. Schools participating in Racine’s new Parental Private School Choice Program are included as well.

The full report and an interactive database of school information are available on the Forum's website.