At Thursday night’s Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) board meeting, there was extensive discussion about selective admissions at Milwaukee’s charter schools. Particularly, the focus was on the admission of special needs students and students of color. But while a great deal of anti-charter school rhetoric was put forth, what is most important is to look at what the actual data shows.

Indeed, there are lower rates of special needs students in non-instrumentality charter schools than in traditional public schools. Using data from the 2016-17 school year, about 11 percent of students in these schools are classified as having some sort of special need compared to 23 percent in traditional public schools.

However, as was pointed out by MPS Director Terry Falk, there is a subset of MPS schools that also have significantly lower rates of disability than traditional public schools—the citywide specialty schools.

Citywide specialty schools are ostensibly public schools in Milwaukee that have no attendance area and specific admissions requirements. According to some former MPS administrators, the origin of such schools was to provide a “white benefit” to prevent white flight to the suburbs as integration efforts ramped up in the 1980s. And indeed, along with having fewer students with disabilities, citywide specialty schools have a lower share of non-white students. While the rate of non-white students in non-instrumentality charters is statistically indistinguishable from the rate for MPS traditional schools (89 percent and 90 percent respectively), the rate for MPS specialty schools is significantly lower at about 80 percent. 

In my Apples to Apples study that places schools on a level playing field for fairer comparison, I noted that, while MPS specialty schools share a performance advantage with charter and private schools over traditional MPS schools in absolute terms, it is only in these specialty schools where the performance advantage is fully accounted for by demographics. In other words, once race, economic status and other characteristics of students are taken into account, the performance advantage of these schools disappears. This is suggestive —though by no means definitive— evidence that it is the discriminatory practices of MPS Specialty schools that give them the aura of high performance rather than any great educational practices that are going on in these buildings.

However, this is not the case for non-instrumentality charter schools. Their performance advantage over MPS actually expands once demographic factors are accounted for, making the decision to go after these schools even more hard to understand.  

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this story is that the system which most often faces accusations of selecting its students—the private school choice system— is the only one that is actually prohibited from doing so. Schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), as well as the state’s other school choice programs, are prohibited by law from having any discriminatory admissions criteria. Indeed, they are precluded from selecting students at all, and must take all comers regardless of the extent to which they fit with the goals and mission of the school. Even when it comes to the religious schools that predominate in the MPCP, students must be given the opportunity to sit out religious classes if they don’t follow that particular religion.  

The rightness or wrongness of this law can be debated. Under this system, parents hold the complete power to choose the school that they believe is best for their students regardless of what administrators may think. That said, such regulations may tend to homogenize educational options, and limit the number of private schools that choose to participate in choice programs.

All of this belies the reality that there is nothing inherently wrong with selective admissions schools. The ability for students to have an education tailored to their needs can sometimes mean that schools may select students whose needs align with the school. This could be a school that is focused on Montessori education, a school for gifted students, or a school for students with special needs. But if MPS deigns to end this practice for its charter schools, it should first take a hard look at its own backyard.  

Will Flanders is the Education Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.