The first state funded voucher program in the US was established in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1990, without being put to a referendum. It began with seven private schools enrolling voucher-funded children who were from low-income, mainly African-American, families and chosen by lottery.
The voucher program was expanded to include religious schools in 1997 even though an evaluation of the program had found no gains in student achievement. The value of the voucher was increased, at the demand of the participating private schools, until it matched or even exceeded the full cost of educating a student at a public school. By 2004 the program included 115 mainly religious private schools. Fifty of them were newly-created free-market schools established to take advantage of the voucher funds. In 2006 the limit of 15,000 students in the program was lifted to 22,500. By 2008 there were approximately 20,000 students attending 122 schools with the help of vouchers.
Schools in the Milwaukee voucher program are not required to test their students nor to publish any test results, even though they receive some $87 million of taxpayer money each year. They do not have to hire certified teachers and can even hire teachers who are not even college graduates. They can suspend or expel students without explanation, and do not have to “disclose attendance, suspension, or drop out rates.” This lack of regulation is supposed to provide the schools with flexibility to innovate and compete and it is assumed by advocates that they will be kept accountable by free-market forces; if they don’t deliver a high standard of education parents will move their children elsewhere.
The new voucher-dependent schools tend to have inadequate facilities: “Some were nothing more than refurbished, cramped storefronts. Some did not have any discernable curriculum and only a few books”. One “used the back alley as a playground”. In the first five years around 25 percent of voucher schools went out of business, three during the school year, stranding their students.
When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigated the 115 schools in the voucher program reporters were refused access to nine of them. They found “alarming deficiencies” in another ten percent of the schools. They claimed that these schools did not have the “ability, resources, knowledge or will to offer children even a mediocre education”. This is not surprising given, as Education Week writer, Gerald Grant, pointed out: “good schools … are not instantaneous creations that can be thrown up like a chain of ‘7-11’ stores”.
A study by professors Wolf and Witte found "no statistically significant differences in the test scores between the public and private school fourth and eighth graders for the 2006-07 school year". The study is ongoing. Howard Fuller, superintendent of Milwaukee schools when vouchers were introduced there, has since admitted that vouchers hadn't "worked like we thought it would in theory".
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