A Faith-Based Advantage for Religious Voucher Schools?

I love thinking, learning, and writing about school vouchers. It is a controversial issue that touches on so many of the pressing topics in public administration, including the fuzzy line between public and private, network governance, equity, access, accountability, efficiency, first-amendment rights, professionalism, transparency, and of course politics. And I live and work in Wisconsin, where the most substantively important experiment in the use of school vouchers happens to be taking place in the state’s largest city. The MPCP is a rich case study that can add value to the public and nonprofit governance literature, as well as program that policy makers in Wisconsin need to better understand.

Much of the research on school vouchers in Milwaukee and elsewhere focuses on student-level impacts. It is time to move past this for two reasons. First, it is settled social science. Giving a student a voucher in and of itself does not, on aggregate, create substantively significant academic gains. Second, it takes a suspension of logic to think or assume that the impact of a voucher is going to be the same no matter what school a child uses the voucher to attend. There is logical reason, however, to assume the impact of the voucher is largely going to be determined by the school where the voucher is used. Hence, to truly understand the impacts of voucher programs researchers and policy makers need to use the school as a unit of analysis. And I believe that there is value to understanding the schools in the MPCP. Love the program or hate it, it is part of the education infrastructure in Milwaukee, and it holds some serious market-share. Thus, it is important to understand and explore the performance differences within the voucher sector.

I attempt to do this in my latest article on the MPCP, published in Nonprofit Management & Leadership, entitled “A Faith-Based Advantage?: Comparing the Academic and Fundraising Performance of Sectarian and Nonsectarian Nonprofit Schools in Milwaukee’s School Voucher Program.” In it, I use three years of population data to test whether or not sectarian voucher schools outperform non-sectarian voucher schools in the areas of fundraising and school-level test score proficiency. I find that 78.3 percent of voucher schools engage in fundraising. I also find that a higher percentage of sectarian schools (about 82 percent) engage in fundraising compared to non-sectarian schools (about 60 percent).   However, when I control for various school-level characteristics school size and reliance on vouchers impacts fundraising amounts more than religion. Basically, larger schools, and those with higher-percentages of voucher pupils, engage in less fundraising. I suspect this is a case of a school finding economies of scale while committing to be primarily voucher-funded.

The implication of this finding is potentially significant. The large amount of fundraising occurring in the voucher sector suggests that the actual cost of educating voucher pupils is shared between state taxpayers and private donors. Is this good or bad? Well, I think it is good that donors are investing in K-12 education. However, it is potentially dangerous long-term…what happens if outside factors reduce donation amounts? Will the quality of education suffer? I could expand on this with more speculation, but really the question of good or bad is beyond the scope of my research at this time. It is important, however, to at least acknowledge the extent of fundraising that goes on in the Milwaukee voucher program. It is the norm, not the exception.

The second part of the paper deals with performance. I find, after controlling for various school level characteristics, that religious schools are outperforming non-sectarian schools, and that schools engaging in more fundraising have better test results. In other words, there is evidence of a religious school advantage. Does this mean that religion makes schools inherently better? I do not think so. My suspicion is that membership in an umbrella organization like an archdiocese provides schools with resources that a stand-alone independent school does not have. The fact that independent religious schools in my sample are performing similarly to independent non-religious schools supports my suspicion.

My larger take away from this work? First, from a performance standpoint, the policy decision to allow religious schools in the MPCP was the right one. Second, efforts to provide support services to more independent schools, including the work of the Choice Schools Association, Schools that Can Milwaukee, and PAVE (all of which I mention in my article), should continue. If those organizations can mimic the support provided to religious schools by umbrella organizations, there is reason to think performance will improve.

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