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Milwaukee's lessons on school vouchers

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Some of the worst schools - including four this year - have been shut down, often for financial reasons, and voucher proponents hope that the new requirements will make it tougher for bad schools to enter the program.

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"The reality is that when you look at the research, parents choose schools for a lot of different reasons," says Howard Fuller, head of Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of Learning. He's a former Milwaukee schools superintendent and a prominent advocate of the city's choice program. "We need to be focused on making sure [every school] is excellent."

But critics say it's too little, too late.

"We need to ensure that what the public is paying for is a high quality education for kids," says Nancy Van Meter, director of the American Federation of Teachers' Center on Accountability and Privatization. "After this many years there ought to be some hard data, and there's not."

Studies done in the early years of Milwaukee's program, before the state stopped requiring yearly reporting from voucher schools and before religious schools were allowed into the program, showed little difference in student achievement among voucher students, but measurable improvement in parental satisfaction. A new five-year study was just announced by Georgetown University in Washington.

Nationally, studies on vouchers have been mixed. A few showed signs of improved student achievement and evidence that competition improves public schools. Others showed negligible difference. "The evidence to date is very mixed," says Jack Jennings, director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "For [the] sake of kids ... it would be good to have an objective analysis."

Smaller voucher programs currently exist in Washington, D.C. and Cleveland, while Florida and Utah have specialized ones that target students with disabilities. A larger Florida voucher program was declared unconstitutional by that state's supreme court earlier this year.

"People feel good about having choice," says Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University. "But most of what they're having is the choice to move into a private school that is not so different from the public school they left."

Still, some students say the program can make an enormous difference. "Everything has room for improvement, but if this works now, let's give it a chance," says Charles Green, a senior at Messmer Catholic High School, who will go to New York's Columbia University next fall on a full scholarship.

Messmer gets about 80 percent of its students through vouchers. Students put the name of the college they're shooting for on their locker, and the daily attendance rate - often higher than 95 percent - is posted by the entrance. Nearly 90 percent of its students go on to a four-year college every year, says principal Jeff Monday.

Like all schools in the program, it can't use selective criteria to admit students.

Its imposing brick building couldn't be more different from Hope Christian School, located in a shabby strip mall in one of the city's worst neighborhoods. But that doesn't stop Hope from offering a positive alternative to the neighborhood public schools.

Students there go to school for extended hours, call teachers on their cellphones if they have trouble with homework, and attend school on some Saturdays.

Marchelle Hicks says she didn't know what to do with her son Orlando at his old school - he was getting failing grades and the school insisted he go on medication for attention-deficit disorder. She found out about Hope's rigorous, no-excuses curriculum through a brochure in her door, and enrolled him in fourth grade there this year.

"He's an 'A' student," Ms. Hicks says proudly. "Now we don't talk about testing or medication.... His whole attitude of going to school has changed."