By Will Flanders, WILL Research Director; Jim Bender, President of School Choice Wisconsin; Justin Moralez, State Director for Wisconsin – American Federation for Children

Today, a Wall Street Journal news reporter (unrelated to the editorial board), Tawnell Hobbs, released an analysis of the Milwaukee school choice program. The key finding: the success of a private school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program depends on the number of voucher students at the school compared to those who are tuition-paying. A low number of voucher students relative to tuition-paying students means that the school will do well. A high number of voucher students means the school will struggle. 

From a research and policy point of view, the WSJ analysis is very frustrating. It fails to mention some of the most comprehensive and recent studies which show the benefits of a voucher. And the key finding of the “analysis” is neither useful nor accurate.  

  • Even though she was told of them, the reporter refused to include a number of studies, some peer-reviewed, showing the benefits of voucher performance.

The School Choice Demonstration Project is the most comprehensive longitudinal analysis of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) conducted to date. And it is never mentioned. Not once. Among the findings of the study are that:

  • Students in private schools on vouchers have higher graduation rates than similar students at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS),
  • Students who leave choice schools to return to public schools performed better in their public school,
  • Students who use a voucher are less likely to become involved in criminal behavior, and
  • Students on a voucher have higher scores in reading than similar students at MPS.

Moreover, last year’s study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) (a more recent although not longitudinal study like SCDP) showed how private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) significantly outperform traditional Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). On the Forward Exam, students in the MPCP were approximately 5 percent more likely to be proficient in English/Language Arts and about 4 percentmore likely to be proficient in Math. On the ACT, students in the MPCP score, on average, 2.8 points higher than students in traditional public schools. This analysis is far richer than that offered by the Wall Street Journal.

A WILL and School Choice Wisconsin study, which was recently published in an academic journal, showed how low achieving private schools are losing market share to higher-achieving schools in Milwaukee. In other words, school choice is working in Milwaukee to lift up better schools at the expense of low achieving schools. This was also left out of Hobbs’ analysis.

By ignoring these factors, Hobbs is better able to get the conclusion of: the “City’s nearly 29,000 voucher students”, on average, have performed about the same as their peers in public schools on state exams.”

  • The reporter’s analysis makes it seem like there is a perfect ratio of voucher students to non-voucher students for a private school. That’s not useful.

Interviewed by Hobbs, Bender suggests her storyline was based on faulty assumptions which were pointed out in a lengthy exchange.  The information she was seeking was only useful if it fit her pre-conceived narrative for the story. First-hand knowledge of the program and history were of little value.

But even if we take her conclusions at face value, it is unclear what Hobbs would recommend as a solution to this problem.  Would it be for private schools to take fewer voucher students so that they make up a smaller share of enrollment? This is not reasonable in a city where nearly 30,000 low-income families benefit from sending their child to school on through the MPCP. The only way to do this would be to remove the choice from thousands of families that desperately need education alternatives.

  • Nor is it accurate. 

Schools in the MPCP cater primarily to low-income families. The program is limited to families within 300% of the federal poverty line, of which most are African American or Hispanic. Unfortunately, these are the same students that often have more difficulty in school. To say that schools that take on more kids have lower levels of proficiency than schools that take on fewer such kids is hardly surprising. But it would be quite the leap to say that the number of kids they take on is the cause. It should be no surprise that schools that enroll mostly low-income students tend to perform less well on tests.  This is true of public schools as well. The right question to ask is whether the private schools with mostly poor students are doing better on tests than the public schools those children came from. The answer to that question is clearly yes.

A great example of the problem with this surface-level analysis is Marquette University High School. Marquette is an expensive private school where only about 12 percent of students use the voucher. This school is among the highest performing in the state by any metric. But it is an extreme outlier. The inclusion of schools like Marquette, which could not be replicated throughout the city of Milwaukee even if the desire to do so existed, biases the sort of analysis that Hobbs purports to conduct.

While critiquing the motives of the mainstream media is in vogue these days, we will refrain from that. All we’ll say is that there is a wealth of sophisticated, peer-reviewed research on school choice in Milwaukee. It is too bad the Hobbs ignored it, opting to re-invent the wheel to do her own flawed analysis.