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Study: Choice Schools Outperforming Public Peers

MADISON — On this National School Choice Week, a new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty shows parental choice programs continuing to outperform public schools, particularly in the state’s largest city.

Apples to Apples: Accessing Wisconsin State of Education”, accesses Badger State educational performance across public, charter, and private voucher schools. Unlike the Department of Public Instruction’s annual report card, WILL’s analysis takes into account demographic factors, such as the number of economically disadvantaged students in a school, that play a significant role in student performance.

The study found student proficiency rates in Milwaukee’s private choice schools were 8.1 percent higher in English/Language Arts, and 8.3 percent higher in math on average than rates in the city’s traditional public schools.

At the same time,, charter school students in Milwaukee continue to outperform their public school peers. Independent charter schools in Milwaukee had proficiency rates 3.7 percent higher in English/Language Arts and 4.6 percent higher in math on average than students in public schools. District charters saw 8.5 percent and 8.8 percent higher proficiency in ELA and math respectively.

“As has been the case in every year we’ve conducted this analysis, choice and charter schools in Milwaukee exceed the proficiency of traditional public schools once appropriate control variables are included,” Will Flanders, Research Director at the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, writes in the latest study. This is the fifth year WILL has published the Apples to Apples analysis.

The report comes out as the Republican-controlled Legislature looks to expand school choice options, including universal offerings, and Democrat Gov. Tony Evers continues his quest to put Wisconsin’s storied School Choice program on the path to extinction. In his State of the State address Tuesday evening, Evers, the former DPI superintendent, did not mention school choice. But he did say plenty about pouring more taxpayer money into the state’s faltering public education system.

The study’s other key findings include:

• Statewide, choice students outperform their public-school peers in ELA and Math. Proficiency rates were about 3.2% higher n ELA for students participating in school choice statewide than traditional public- school students, and 2.1% higher in math, on average.

• Wisconsin continues to struggle with achievement gaps. Statewide, a school with 100% low-income students would be expected to have proficiency rates 40% lower than a school with no low-income students in ELA and 42.4% lower in math. For African American students, that gap is 19.1% in ELA and 22% in math. Hispanic students have an achievement gap of approximately 3.7% in ELA and 7.2% in math.

• Little evidence was found that more spending affects student performance. Once the demographics of students in the schools are taken into account, the level of per capita spending in a public school district has no statistical impact on student proficiency.

• Proficiency remains well below pre-COVID levels. While math proficiency rebounded slightly, ELA proficiency continued to decline once non-participation on the test is accounted for.

• Rural schools are the lowest performing subset. On average, proficiency in Wisconsin’s rural schools is significantly lower in both ELA and math than urban, suburban, or small town schools.

Unlike the 2020-21 report, students were generally back in school last year, in person, with far fewer virtual learning days.

“Consequently, this year’s report likely provides a clearer picture of where kids stand around the Badger State,” the study asserts.

Wisconsin has four private parental choice programs — including the pioneer voucher schools in Milwaukee, as well as in Racine, statewide, and the Special Needs Scholarship Program. Higher performance comes even as the voucher schools are funded at a significantly lower level than Wisconsin’s public schools. For the 2022-23 school year, schools accepting the voucher for high school will receive $9,045 per student. Schools with students in grades K-8 will receive $8,399 per student. On average, traditional public schools receive $14,596 in state and local funding per student, and the lowest funded school district (Merton) receives $11,440.

As the two-year state budget battles begin, Evers and State Superintendent Jill Underly are calling for billions of dollars more in public school funding.

“However, in Wisconsin and around the country, there has historically been very little relationship between overall spending and student outcomes,” the study notes. The latest Apples to Apples comparisons find that fact has not changed.

The pandemic years and the accompanying lockdowns set student performance back, in some cases significantly, everywhere. Now, the debate over how to make up for these generational losses will rank among the more critical public policy questions.

WILL’s latest report asserts that school choice in Wisconsin continues to offer a valuable alternative to traditional public education. Competition in education is critical as public schools continue to struggle, the study notes.

“Unfortunately, only some residents of the state enjoy the opportunity to take advantage of these programs. Onerous income limits on private school choice mean that middle-class families are priced out of educational options,” the study states. “Moreover, a limited willingness to open new charter schools from some authorizers, coupled with outright hostility to charters among others, has limited the supply of these high-performing schools.”

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