Policy Study

Given the Choice

A Study of the PAVE Program and School Choice in Milwaukee

Executive Summary

In response to declining student performance in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the Wisconsin state legislature and the private sector each created programs to give school choice to low-income students.

In 1990-91 the Wisconsin state legislature implemented the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Roughly 750 students received government-funded tuition vouchers in 1993-94 to attend any one of a dozen non-religious private schools in Milwaukee.

In 1992, business and religious organizations joined to establish Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a privately funded school-choice program for low-income students. Unlike the MPCP, PAVE’s tuition scholarships may be used at any private school in Milwaukee, including religious schools. PAVE served roughly 2,370 students enrolled in 102 different private schools during the 1993-94 school year.

Key findings from parent surveys and student-academic records about the PAVE program include the following:

  • PAVE students outperform both MPCP and MPS students on standardized tests of academic achievement.
  • PAVE students who had previously been enrolled in private schools and PAVE students who had previously been enrolled in public schools were nearly identical in terms of demographic characteristics. However, PAVE students who had come from private schools performed significantly better on standardized tests, suggesting that school environment (i.e. public or private) directly influences student performance.
  • Parents indicated the most important reason for choosing a school was educational quality, followed by discipline and general atmosphere. Ninety-six percent of PAVE parents were satisfied with the amount their child learned in school.
  • Most PAVE families, or 57 percent, are headed by a single parent. Roughly half the parents of PAVE students are White. Over a third are African-American; one-sixth are Hispanic. The average age of PAVE parents is 35, with a range of 20 to 79 years of age.
  • While most PAVE elementary-school students (60 percent) attend Catholic parochial schools, the PAVE program extends the greatest support, as a proportion of student enrollment, to Muslim, Jewish, and non-Catholic Christian schools where 49 percent, 29 percent, and 29 percent of students respectively use PAVE scholarships. By contrast, 13 percent of Catholicschool students use PAVE scholarships.

PAVE has dispelled the myth that poor parents don’t care about their children’s education.

-Mother of PAVE scholarship recipient


Janet R. Beales is a policy analyst with the Education Studies Program of the Reason Foundation. Before earning her M.B.A. degree at the University of Washington, Ms. Beales was assistant editor for the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, and a project manager at the National Chamber Foundation in Washington, D.C. She is the author of numerous articles and Reason Foundation studies on education policy.

Richard W. Wahl is an economist in the Environment and Behavior Program at the Institute for Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder and consultant on natural resource issues. For more than 13 years he was a senior-level economist in the Office of Policy Analysis in the U.S. Department of the Interior. He is the author of Markets for Federal Water: Subsidies, Property Rights, and the Bureau of Reclamation, published by Resources for the Future. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not of the Institute for Behavioral Sciences.