New Evidence on School-Choice Successes in Wisconsin

(Photo: Michael Flippo/Dreamstime)
Higher test scores for students who go to the school their parents freely choose

During President Donald Trump’s Joint Address to Congress, 25-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., native Denisha Merriweather stood tall in the crowded House gallery. The President recognized Merriweather as an example of how school choice, in her case the Florida tax-credit scholarship, can open up opportunities for thousands of low-income children, often minority, who are trapped in failing public schools. As Alexandra DeSanctis recently explained at NRO, Merriweather had struggled with reading earlier in her educational career, failing third grade twice. But she was able to use a tax-credit scholarship to attend private school from sixth grade to graduation and is now a college graduate with a master’s degree. She serves as a sterling example of how school choice can transform lives and extend the ladder of opportunity to those who need it most.

President Trump and Betsy DeVos, his reform-minded education secretary, have pledged to make school choice a pillar of the administration’s education agenda. Trump has said he wants Congress to dedicate $20 billion to extend school choice, most likely in the form of tax-credit scholarships, to millions of students across the country. The results could be revolutionary, and a new study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty shows why.

Milwaukee, Wis., is home to the nation’s oldest private school-choice program. Created in the early 1990s with a bipartisan coalition, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) has grown to serve more than 27,000 students, all low-income and overwhelmingly minority. While the demand for school choice is evidenced by its popularity, data on whether private-voucher and charter schools serve to educate students better than traditional public schools have been subject to a muddied and distorted debate.

The problem has been that making “apples to apples” comparisons about student outcomes across education sectors — public, private, and charter — has been hindered by insufficient data. Testing was inconsistent, and demographic data were often unavailable. Even if we could compare test scores between voucher students and those in traditional public schools, we were unable to control for demographic characteristics of study that might affect outcomes. In other words, it was generally impossible to know whether voucher students were comparable to those in public schools. But new testing mandates and the release of demographic information from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has enabled the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty to make a first-of-its-kind comparison between school sectors.

In a new study, Apples to Apples: The Definitive Look at School Test Scores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we were finally able to compare like groups of students. The results are astonishing. On an apples-to-apples basis, we found that private schools in the voucher program and public charter schools in Milwaukee performed significantly better on the 2016 ACT and state exams than did traditional public schools. When factors such as poverty, race, and the number of students who are not proficient in English are taken into account and properly controlled for, we find that student outcomes on test scores are simply better in the private and charter sectors than they are in traditional public schools.

In Milwaukee, the choice and charter sectors are consistently outperforming the Milwaukee Public Schools. In addition to higher proficiency rates on statewide tests, students in the choice program score, on average, 2.8 points higher than students in traditional public schools on the ACT. These results are most pronounced in Milwaukee’s Catholic and Lutheran schools, whose students outperform even other choice students. Students in charter schools also see significant performance differences, scoring 4.4 points higher on average. These differences in test scores could mean the difference in getting a scholarship, or in getting into college at all.

These differences in test scores could mean the difference in getting a scholarship, or in getting into college at all.

When we focused outside of Milwaukee, the research revealed that students in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program and the Racine Parental Choice Program, the newest choice programs in Wisconsin, scored 6 points higher on the ACT.

President Trump and Secretary DeVos may be on the cusp of a revolution in education, though the specifics of any national school-choice plan matter greatly. After decades of largely unsuccessful, top-down, Washington-centered approaches to education reform, students and parents will be empowered to make the decisions that best suit them. This study matters, not to build one sector up and tear another down, but because it helps provide parents and the general public with the best information about what is working and what isn’t in our schools. For families of modest means, who, like all families, wish to give their children the best chance to succeed, school choice is often the best choice.

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