Milwaukee School Voucher Program has more Students with Disabilities than Previously Reported



Patrick J. Wolf   (479) 445-9821 University of Arkansas
John F. Witte   (608) 445-5026 University of Wisconsin
David J. Fleming   (920) 205-7041 Furman University
Janice B. Riddell  (203) 912-8675 External Relations, Education Next

Milwaukee School Voucher Program has more Students with Disabilities than Previously Reported

Study shows that 7 to 14 percent of voucher students have disabilities, as compared to 2 percent estimate by Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

CAMBRIDGE, MA – A new study estimates that between 7.5 and 14 percent of students in Milwaukee’s voucher program have disabilities, a much higher rate than the one provided by the Wisconsin State Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which has stated, “about 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability.”

The report, “Special Choices:  Do voucher schools serve students with disabilities?” is available at  The authors are professors Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, John Witte of the University of Wisconsin, and David Fleming of Furman University.

The new research is significant in that it affords an unusual opportunity to obtain high quality information on the participation rate in school voucher programs by students with disabilities.  It is sometimes argued, particularly by critics of voucher programs, that private schools exclude most students with disabilities.  The scarcity of information reflects the fact that private schools, unlike public schools, do not receive additional funding for students with disabilities, and consequently are not required by federal law to follow complex procedures for the identification of those students.

The Milwaukee voucher program is the largest and longest-running urban school choice program in the U.S., established in 1990 and now serving over 22,000 low-income students who attend 107 private schools using $6,000 vouchers toward tuition.

In a five-year study (2006-11), the three researchers used three different methods to identify the percentage of voucher students who would have been identified as in need of special education had they been enrolled in public school.

Their first method analyzed information on 1,475 students (20% of the total 7,338 sample) who had attended schools with a voucher for part of their education but had also been in public schools.  Among this group of students they found that 9.1 percent were identified as disabled when attending a private school, but 14.6 percent were identified as disabled when attending Milwaukee’s public schools.  The authors conclude that the rate of identification is 5.5 percent higher by public schools than by private schools, when the exact same students are being classified.

Their second method relies on reports from principals at private schools, who say that 7.5 percent of their students have disabilities.

The third method is based on interviews with parents of students in grades 3 through 9. According to parents, the disability rate among voucher students is 11.4 percent, as compared to 20.4 percent in the public schools.

The authors suggest that the 7.5 percent estimate from private school officials is “a lower-bound estimate, since several principals (said) they resist labeling students as disabled.”

Parent satisfaction with special education services was similar for both voucher students and public school students.  When parents of students with disabilities were asked “how well do the facilities at the child’s school attend to his/her particular needs?” about half the parents reported.  Fifty percent of the parents of voucher students said they were doing “very well” as compared to 52 percent of public school parents.

About Education Next

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