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Choice works

Look to Milwaukee for success by Howard L. Fuller and Patrick J. Wolf Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 28, 2019 at 2:41 a.m.

Last week a bill was introduced in the Arkansas Legislature to create a new parental school choice initiative. Senate Bill 620, authored by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, and Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, would establish the Capital Promise Scholarship Program. The five-year pilot program, supported by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, would provide scholarships to approximately 500 low-income students in Pulaski County, enabling their parents to enroll them in a participating private school chosen by their parents. To be eligible, students would have to be entering kindergarten or transferring from a public school.

When reporters asked Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, about the program, she suggested that state policymakers look to Milwaukee for evidence about what happens when low-income students are provided with the opportunity to attend private schools with the support of state-funded scholarships. We think that is good advice.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (aka the "Choice Program") was the first urban private school choice program in the U.S. Like the program proposed for Pulaski County, the Choice Program started as a five-year pilot capped at 500 students. Children needed to be eligible for the federal lunch program to qualify for the program. The program in Milwaukee has operated continuously for 29 years since its enactment in 1990.

We know a lot about Milwaukee's experience with parental choice in education. One of us, Dr. Fuller, was superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools immediately prior to the establishment of the Choice Program and has advised policymakers about how to improve urban education for almost 50 years. The other one of us, Dr. Wolf, has evaluated six parental school choice programs over the past 20 years. Dr. Wolf has led a major evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program since 2006.

What have we learned? First, the opportunity to select a private school for one's child is popular among parents in Milwaukee. In less than 30 years, enrollment in the program has grown from 341 to 28,702 students. Throughout the program's long history, almost all of its participants have been children of color.

Second, most of the evidence indicates that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program improves student achievement. Three of the four longitudinal evaluations have reported positive achievement effects of the Choice Program on reading, math, or both sets of test scores. All six studies of the competitive effects of the program have found that the students who remain in public schools that lose enrollments to private schools subsequently score higher on tests as a result. As Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has said, school choice creates "a rising tide that lifts all boats."

Third, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has demonstrated its most important positive effects on non-test-score outcomes. The lifelong success of young people hinges critically on three factors: graduating from high school, avoiding criminal convictions, and not becoming a single parent. Recent research in Milwaukee shows that participants graduated from high school at a 10 percent higher rate, and, as young adults, were convicted of 86 percent fewer property crimes, 53 percent fewer drug crimes, and were named in 38 percent fewer paternity suits than carefully matched students who attended Milwaukee Public Schools.

The program likely will have even larger positive effects on student rates of graduating high school and enrolling in college than researchers have found for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

The proposed Arkansas program will provide college tuition scholarships of $5,000 annually to participating students who graduate from high school with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, thus incentivizing them to stay in school, get good grades, and complete their diplomas. Graduates will have to attend a college or university in Pulaski County to use their Opportunity Scholarship for higher education.

The program also provides parents with the flexibility to use extra funds after tuition is covered to support such education expenses as transportation, tutoring, and AP exam fees. Clearly the designers of this legislation have learned some best practices from the school choice experience in Wisconsin and the 25 other states across the country with such programs.

The parents and children of Milwaukee have benefited significantly from parental choice in education for almost 30 years. Now would be a great time to make those same benefits, and more, available to low-income families in Pulaski County, Arkansas.


Dr. Howard L. Fuller is a civil rights leader and a distinguished professor of education at Marquette University. Dr. Patrick J. Wolf is a distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The opinions expressed here are their own.

Editorial on 03/28/2019

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