Sources of isomorphism in the Milwaukee voucher school sector

AuthorMichael R Ford,Fredrik O Andersson
Publication Date01 Jan 2021
Sources of isomorphism
in the Milwaukee voucher
school sector
Michael R Ford
Department of Public Administration, University of
Wisconsin-Oshkosh, USA
Fredrik O Andersson
School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana
University-Purdue University Indianapolis, USA
In this article, 25 years of data are utilized from nonprofit schools operating in the
United States’ oldest and largest private school voucher program to test theories of
isomorphism. We find that startup and religious schools belonging to an umbrella
organization such as an archdiocese are particularly likely to serve similar student
bodies at similar costs. In addition, we find that isomorphic pressures increase the
longer a school participates in the Milwaukee voucher program, and that increased
program regulation is related to increased sector isomorphism. The results illustrate
the difficulty of using New Public Management style reforms, at scale, to encourage a
diversity of nongovernment providers to provide a service traditionally provided by the
public sector. The results will be of interest to scholars studying nonprofit institutional
theories, school choice, and New Public Management style reforms.
Contracting out, networks, public management, public sector reform, regulation
President Donald Trump’s 2017 proposal to invest 20 billion dollars in school
choice programs, as well as his appointment of prominent school voucher advocate
Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, has renewed public interest in private
school voucher reforms. Recent scholarly debates over the ef‌fectiveness of school
voucher policy have similarly increased public attention placed on the two-dozen
Public Policy and Administration
2021, Vol. 36(1) 89–114
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076719838298
Corresponding author:
Michael R Ford, Department of Public Administration, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 800 Algoma Blvd.,
Oshkosh, WI 54901, USA.
private school voucher programs operating in the United States (Dynarski et al.,
2017). At issue is the question of whether educational choice programs lead to
improved performance. This specif‌ic question relates to a larger question relevant
to theories of New Public Management, networks, and the hollow state: What is
the potential for private and nonprof‌it organizations to supplant and/or comple-
ment traditional modes of public service delivery? Mature school voucher policies,
which transfer the day-to-day operations of publicly funded schools to private
entities at scale, serve as an excellent case of New Public Management and network
governance realized (Ford and Andersson, 2017).
Bryson et al. (2014) describe New Public Management as a shift in values from
traditional administration in which questions of ‘‘how to govern, not just manage’’
service delivery take precedent (445). In the New Public Management, focus is
placed on ef‌fectiveness and outputs rather than inputs and structures. The promise
of New Public Management is a nimble public sector that utilizes market forces to
create diverse service delivery networks that both improve performance and reduce
costs. However, skeptics such as Stillman (1999) note that such an approach can
reduce government capacity, transparency, and accountability. Milward and
Provan (2000, 2003) discuss the unique challenges created by what they deem the
hollow state, which refers to the network of nongovernment organizations provid-
ing public services. In the case of school vouchers, the hollow state refers to the net-
work of private schools providing a publicly funded education to American pupils.
Peters (2010) discusses how the regulation of organizations within governing
networks must be balanced against organizational autonomy if a network is to
add value and be publicly accountable. The ef‌forts to ef‌fectively govern organiza-
tions in a hollow state network, however, can also lead to organizational isomorph-
ism. If the organizations in such a network all begin to look and feel the same, the
theoretical gains in performance stemming from increased consumer choice, innov-
ation, and organizational autonomy are undermined. As such, there is a need to
better understand what factors lead to organizational isomorphism in a mature
hollow state governing network. In this paper, we add to the existing public and
nonprof‌it management literature by exploring the determinants of organizational
isomorphism in the United States’ oldest and largest urban private school voucher
program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).
The MPCP began in 1990 as a limited experiment allowing 341 low-income
Milwaukee pupils to attend seven nonprof‌it schools at government expense.
Today, almost 30,000 low- and middle-income Milwaukee students are attending
over 100 private nonprof‌it schools at government expense. Each spring the
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) releases a list of all schools
registered to participate in the MPCP the following year. Parents simply contact
the school they want their child to attend, and apply for the program directly at the
school. To qualify students must live in the City of Milwaukee, and reside in a
household with a total income at or below 300% of the federal poverty level (prior
to 2011, the income qualif‌ication threshold was 175% of the federal poverty level).
Parents may apply to multiple schools, and if schools receive more applicants than
90 Public Policy and Administration 36(1)

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