By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — A legislative study confirmed what Adam Smith posited some 200 years ago: Competition in the marketplace leads to improved results — even in education.
From the 2006 to 2010 school year, students increased their test scores in Milwaukee Parental Choice Schools and Milwaukee Public Schools. But choice school students slightly outperformed their public school counterparts in most areas.
“I think whenever you have education under a bit of competition, when you’re going after market share, that’s a good thing for students,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization advocating for school choice programs. “The competitive nature in Milwaukee is improving education overall, it’s great for Milwaukee.”
State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, an outspoken critic of choice schools and member of the Senate Education Committee, did not return calls for comment.
Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau research showed choice students made higher gains than MPS students in seventh- and 10th-grade reading over the five-year period.
Researchers at the University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project, which provided the choice results to the audit bureau, “found that eighth-grade choice pupils scored higher than MPS pupils on the reading section, and seventh-grade choice pupils scored higher than MPS pupils on the mathematics section.”
Overall, Milwaukee students lag behind the state in proficiency based on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination.
These are respective rankings for seventh, eighth and 10th grades:
- In reading, choice schools ranked in the 26th, 26th and 20th percentiles statewide.
- In reading, MPS ranked in the 22nd, 16th and 20th percentiles statewide.
- In math, choice schools ranked in the 19th, 17th and 14th percentiles statewide.
- In math: MPS MPS ranked in the 18th, 13th and 19th percentiles statewide.
Although the choice and MPS schools rank in the lower quarter, progress has been demonstrable over the past five years:
“We certainly recognize that we’re in a competitive educational marketplace but the reality is that, as a whole, neither group of students is at the level of achievement where we need and want them to be,” Tony Tagliavia, MPS spokesman, wrote in an email.
“That’s why MPS continues to work relentlessly to implement the college- and career-ready curriculum we’ve been putting in place over the last two years in our mission to educate all students regardless of income, native language or disability.
“We further believe that we’re the only educational organization in the city of Milwaukee with the commitment and capacity to educate all children,” he wrote.
Bender talked up the school choice program.
“Taking a broader look, I would argue choice is exceeding MPS in key areas,” he said. “When you get into graduation states, choice schools are better. Kids are staying in college longer and performing better in college. Take graduation rates and success in college and you see the true gains students in Choice programs are making.”
Researchers at the University of Arkansas found that over the same five-year period:
- “Enrolling in a private high school through MPCP (Milwaukee Parental Choice Schools) increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college, and persisting in college by 4-7 percentage points.”
- “MPS students themselves are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.”
- “The MPCP saves the state money — nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011 — although not all types of Wisconsin taxpayers benefit from the savings.”
The audit bureau, though, offered a caveat. “We and the researchers believe that the extent to which the choice program affects student achievement cannot be definitively determined based on the test score results obtained from the longitudinal study.”
In the 2010-2011 school year, the state required MPCP schools to administer the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination tests to all of its students, which the researchers say might increase test results that year.
Bender agreed with the audit bureau’s assessment, but for different reasons. “WKCE scores don’t count in MPS if the students aren’t there the full year,” he said. “In the voucher schools, if they walk into school one day before the test, the test is counted.”
He also said some students at Choice schools who took the WKCE would have taken a modified WKCE at MPS.
“We’re very enthusiastic of the dramatic gains being seen in schools. We know students are bettering their education,” Bender said.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org.