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Milwaukee's lessons on school vouchers

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For Destiny Hatcher, private school has made all the difference.

Once a failing student who often got in trouble, she's now getting good grades as an eighth-grader at the Hope Christian School and is determined to go to college.

"At my old school, the environment I was in was the same outside the school and inside the school," says Destiny, dressed in Hope's tie-and-jacket uniform, her braids pulled back with a headband. "Here, the school's in a bad neighborhood, but the environment in the school is really loving."

Hers is the sort of story Milwaukee's school-choice advocates cite when touting the oldest and largest voucher program in the country. Now it's expanding, but 16 years after it began, the policy is still controversial and has shown few documented benefits.

Proponents say it gives options to low-income kids who might otherwise be stuck in failing schools, and that the competition for students is good for all Milwaukee's schools, both public and private. Critics, meanwhile, cite the money the program drains from public schools and the highly uneven quality of the private ones, which aren't held to the same standards.

As one of the few programs in the country, Milwaukee offers a high-stakes test case for both camps. Yet researchers are only beginning to take a comprehensive look at how successful it's been.

"Now quality is emerging as the key issue," says Dan McKinley, director of Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a scholarship program for Milwaukee children that has been generally supportive of vouchers. "Advocates are getting past the ideological posturing, saying 'choice will fix everything.' Parental choice is a precondition for a quality education, not a panacea."

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