By Will Flanders and Collin Roth
This week marks National School Choice Week, a celebration of education options. Across the country, state houses are packed with students, parents, teachers, and supporter of school choice. Wisconsin has a proud heritage when it comes to school choice – home to the very first private voucher program in the country.
Today there are more than 25 school voucher programs nationwide serving more than 180,000 students, and the growth of public charter schools has exploded, serving families in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Given this success, National School Choice Week is a great opportunity to recognize hard-fought victories, while keeping our eye on the important goal of expanding education opportunity for all.
Last year, WILL conducted the most comprehensive analysis of the academic performance of choice and charter schools in Milwaukee since the School Choice Demonstration Project (2006-2012). When a host of variables – including race, economic status, and school grade level—that have an impact on academic performance are taken into consideration, we found that proficiency rates were significantly higher for students exercising school choice. Non-instrumentality and independent charter schools outperformed their traditional public school peers by 8-10 percent. And those using a voucher were 4 percent higher in reading and 5 percent higher in math than their traditional public school peers.
Perhaps more important than academic success is the impact that school choice can have on the individual lives of students and families. Previous research has found that students who attend a private voucher school in Milwaukee are about 4 percent more likely to graduate from high school. Such students are also less likely to become involved in criminal activity, something that is of central importance to many in a city with high rates of incarceration and violent crime. This has a downstream, economic benefit to Wisconsin of about $500 million relative to if those students were stuck in the traditional public school system.
In addition, school choice provides valuable options to families with individual needs. These needs can range from seeking out a special curriculum or academic focus, to a fresh start for students troubled by bullies, to enabling families to find a safe and secure learning environment. School choice, ultimately, recognizes that one size does not fit all – and seeks to ensure that families of every race, income, and zip code have quality options.
Where do we go from here?
Wisconsin has been a leader in the school choice movement for more than two decades, but there is still a lot more that can be done to ensure that all Wisconsin families have access to the educational options that are best for them. For example, artificial limits on the growth of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) remain in place. Only 2 percent of the students in a particular school district are allowed to enroll in choice schools through the WPCP, and that number is currently allowed to increase by only 1 percent per year. This may serve to limit the growth of the program and unfairly deny students the opportunity to attend the school they need because of a poor lottery draw.
Levelling the funding playing field for students in choice, charter, and public schools ought to be a priority for lawmakers going forward. While the amount varies by sector and school district, students attending a private voucher school or charter school receive more than $2,000 less per student than students in traditional public schools. Many quality schools struggle to make up this deficit, despite better academic performance. It is fundamentally unfair that a child is considered to be worth less simply because they make a different educational choice.
Finally, it is vital that Wisconsin remains on the forefront of reform, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) represent the next step forward. A recently proposed ESA for Wisconsin would allow gifted and talented students from low-income families to seek out the supplemental services they need to reach their full potential. WILL research has shown that there is a lack of support for gifted kids in Wisconsin, and this new ESA would represent a significant step forward for these families.
The Wisconsin legislature should keep these ideas in mind so that every week can be School Choice Week for all Wisconsin kids. You can see a one-page synopsis of school choice in Wisconsin here.