MILWAUKEE -- The nation's oldest and largest school voucher program is about to undergo its biggest expansion yet with no clear-cut evidence after 15 years that sending youngsters to private schools at taxpayer expense yields a better education.
Democratic Governor Jim Doyle signed a measure last month to increase the number of participants in the Milwaukee program from 15,000 students to as many as 22,500 next school year.
''This is an educational reform that works," said Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, a provoucher group.
But with hundreds of millions of dollars invested, that assertion is still being debated. Researchers have done dozens of studies on the Milwaukee program as well as programs in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. For every study that shows school-choice students perform better than their public school counterparts, another study contradicts it.
''You've got to wonder about the wisdom of increasing the program by 50 percent when there's no evidence from Milwaukee and no evidence from places like Cleveland that vouchers have succeeded in raising student achievement," said Nancy Van Meter, director of the American Federation of Teachers' Center on Accountability and Privatization.
Milwaukee's program, begun in 1990, allows poor families to send their children to private or parochial schools at state expense, at up to $6,351 per student. This year, the program is expected to cost nearly $94 million.
Supporters say it allows youngsters to escape bad schools and can make the public school system better by forcing it to compete for students. Teachers' unions and others complain that voucher programs drain money and talent from urban schools and run counter to the principle of free, universal public education.
The governor signed the increase after vetoing two smaller expansions in previous years. Religious and business leaders and other voucher supporters had lobbied Doyle for months, and targeted him in a radio ad that likened Doyle, a white man with two adopted black sons, to the segregationist Southern governors of the civil rights era. A TV ad featured a black student saying the governor was ''throwing away my dream."
Terry Brown, president of St. Anthony's parochial school, said his 800 students thrive because the school focuses on structure and instruction and includes Catholicism in daily routine. This year, 4-year-olds are reading for the first time, and after-school programs were added so parents can work longer, Brown said.
Brown said the fight for students is increasing as schools advertise to attract students and the dollars they bring with them. ''It's so competitive. You've got to create a niche and communicate that to parents so they can decide where to send their kids," Brown said.
Though the school board in the 94,000-student Milwaukee district opposed the expansion, board president Ken Johnson said competition with private schools has helped the public schools.
High school graduation rates have improved, students at all levels are performing better on tests, and the schools have become more accountable with tax dollars, Johnson said.
''It can be a healthy competition, not a harmful one," Johnson said.
Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby found that some Milwaukee public schools raised student achievement when faced with competition from voucher schools. Also, she found that students achieve more in voucher schools.
But the AFT argues that other studies show that voucher programs have no effect on achievement in public or private schools. One study conducted by two Princeton University researchers in 2003 found that students in New York's choice program scored about the same as students who did not receive vouchers.
Milwaukee's voucher program required standardized testing for its first five years. A new state law requires the city's voucher schools to again administer standardized tests. A study during the first five years of the Milwaukee program found no discernible difference in standardized test scores between public and school-choice students, said John Witte, the state's evaluator of the program then and a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
To Jacob Walton, 17, Milwaukee's public schools were distracting and failed to challenge him. Last year, Walton enrolled at Messmer High, a Catholic school. He has become senior class vice president and plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater next year. He would not be heading there if not for Messmer, he said.
''It's about business and it's just a strict learning environment," Walton said. ''There's no distractions. The teachers care. Everybody is just so supporting and it's just a great environment to be around."