At a Senate Education Committee hearing in Houston in October, dozens of parents testified about the life-changing benefits to their children through participation in a privately-funded school choice program in San Antonio. These same parents articulated their hope for every Texas school child to someday have the same opportunity.

On the other hand, choice opponents (or “public school supporters,” as they frequently call themselves) claimed choice provides no academic benefit, and only serves to “destroy” public education.

But a visit to Milwaukee reveals that public and private education is thriving under the city’s well-established school choice program. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, enacted by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1990, awards scholarships to low-income students to attend the schools of their choice.

Research on school choice programs in Milwaukee and across the United States has shown tremendous academic benefits for participating students. For example, Cecelia Rouse of Princeton University found the math gains demonstrated by Milwaukee choice students could cut almost in half the black/white achievement gap in four years.

Unfortunately, academic evidence is not enough for choice opponents, who claim every study with positive conclusions is “biased,” therefore making overall results “inconclusive” at best.

But even those who argue with valid research would be hard-pressed to deny the benefits of school choice if they saw it in action.

Detractors should visit Saint Anthony School of Milwaukee, which serves pre-K through 8th-grade students, almost all of whom are Hispanic and economically disadvantaged. Last year, Saint Anthony’s new eighth grade students entering from Milwaukee public schools exhibited the reading skills of second graders. After only nine months at Saint Anthony, the eighth-graders had gained nearly three years’ worth of achievement.

These students certainly have much more ground to cover. But they learned more in one year at Saint Anthony than they had retained in seven years in the public schools. And while the Milwaukee public schools spend more than $12,000 per student, the choice program cost taxpayers only $6,500.

Approximately 15,000 students benefit from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. But what happens to the 96,000 who remain in the public schools? Experience demonstrates that they benefit as well.

The choice program has spurred innovation and rapid improvement among Milwaukee’s public schools, demonstrating increased achievement in math, science, and language arts, as well as decreased dropout rates. Interestingly, the schools exposed to the most potential competition (by having the most students eligible) have demonstrated the greatest gains.

Not only do students benefit, but so does the community. Since the inception of the program, it has spurred almost $120 million in privately-funded capital investment, largely in high poverty areas. This is especially important to schools like Hope Christian Academy, a choice high school in a neighborhood where 20 percent of Milwaukee’s murders take place, the median household income is $13,000, and fewer than half of adults possess a high school diploma.

Following the success of the Milwaukee choice program, former opponents are among the most ardent supporters. While both the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel newspapers originally editorialized against school choice, the merged Journal Sentinel now supports the program after seeing its results, stating, the “program has shaken up education in Milwaukee, has brought to the city more private resources to the challenge of educating needy children and has expanded choices and, thus, hope for families.”

The Milwaukee school board originally opposed the school choice program. But upon seeing firsthand the gains made by private and public school students alike, and the benefits to the local community, the board now stands behind school choice.

This shift of opinion did not come without fierce opposition; Milwaukee’s educator unions vehemently fought the measure before, during, and after implementation. But, as school board member Ken Johnson recently stated, “Having the support of the people is more important than support of the unions. In Milwaukee public schools, everyone has a union but the students.”

Fortunately, in Milwaukee at least, the students won out.

Jamie Story is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit research institute based in Austin. She can be contacted at [email protected].