WAUKESHA, Wis. – A new study by a Milwaukee-based research organization promises the most comprehensive look at statewide student test scores for voucher, charter and public schools.
The study, Apples to Apples, released on Wednesday, shows charter schools and private school voucher programs doing better at educating students than public schools in Wisconsin.
Will Flanders, education research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty said students in Milwaukee’s private school voucher program performed significantly better than their public school peers when controlling for socioeconomic status.
“We looked at both math and English, two of the most important subjects in school, in predicting success later in life,” Flanders said. “We see significantly higher rates of proficiency in both subjects.”
To make the comparison, WILL used data from the statewide Forward Exam and ACT results and adjusted for students’ socioeconomic status to give the “apples to apples” comparison. The Forward Exam is an annual statewide assessment of student proficiency in English language arts, social studies and math.
“We were able to take advantage of new data on all schools regardless of sector, their socioeconomic status makeup, and we were able to take advantage of the new mandates that everyone has to take the ACT,” said CJ Szafir, WILL’s vice president for policy.
In addition to the better performance on the exams by students in Milwaukee’s voucher schools, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, or MPCP, the study found charter schools that were independent of Milwaukee Public Schools outperforming traditional public schools, too, by as much as 10 percent in both subjects.
The study also looked at the religious affiliation of schools in the voucher program.
“We looked at Lutheran and Catholic schools and those schools really are the driver of the positive effect of the MPCP,” Flanders said. “Both of those sectors outperformed traditional public schools by a significant amount.”
“The other choice schools not affiliated with these two churches are statistically indistinguishable,” Flanders said. “Their performance is about the same as traditional public schools.”
Flanders said the study also looked at the two authorizers, the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee, for independent charter schools in Milwaukee.
“We see that UWM charters significantly outperform traditional public schools,” Flanders said. “Whereas the charter that have been authorized by the city are indistinguishable from traditional public schools.”
Szafir said that the result speaks well of UW-Milwaukee and the charter authorizer there. However, he said the difference may also be the result of attitudes in Milwaukee toward charter schools.
“The city of Milwaukee Common Council has been very hostile towards charter schools,” Szafir said.
MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver has said she would like MPS to be the sole authorizer of charter schools in Milwaukee. Flanders said the study showed that may not produce the best outcomes for students.
“Instrumentality charter schools authorized by MPS generally look no different than MPS schools,” Flanders said. The independent charter schools that have more freedom are the ones doing well, according to Flanders.
Flanders said the study did not limit the comparisons to choice or charter schools to public schools. The study also looked at citywide specialty public schools, which are touted as successes by MPS.
“Once we account for race and economic status, the performance of those schools is no different than the average neighborhood school,” Flanders said. “The reason we think that’s the case is because the only sector in Milwaukee where we do see evidence of ‘creaming,’ schools with a different racial and demographic makeup than the average school, is in these citywide specialty schools.”
“Those schools are significantly more white than the average school in Milwaukee and there are significantly less numbers of students from low-income backgrounds,” Flanders said. He said the screening of students for these schools may lead to the higher scores these schools have before race and socioeconomic status are taken into account.
Flanders said when race and socioeconomic status are taken into account, voucher and charter schools outperform the citywide specialty schools.
“Because the driver in those citywide specialty schools is more economic background and race,” Flanders said. “Whereas the driver in the choice program and the charter schools is something they are potentially doing in those schools.”
The study also did a statewide comparison of voucher students with those in traditional public schools, combining the voucher students in the Racine Parental Choice Program and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to give a large enough statistical sample. The study found that again the students in the two private school voucher programs did significantly better than their public school peers on the ACT test.
“On the Forward Exam we did not find a significant difference,” Flanders said. “As the program continues to grow and there are more kids in the program with more years in the program with more buy-in from private schools around the state, we might see those numbers change.”
James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.