On Thursday at 11:00a.m., the Joint Finance Committee will vote on components of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) budget. As this includes funding for the state’s choice, charter, and open enrollment programs, it seems an excellent time to preview WILL’s upcoming third annual Apples to Apples study, the most comprehensive analysis of school performance for 2019.

What it is and why it matters:

Wisconsin is relatively unique in providing extensive data on the demographic and economic characteristics of Wisconsin schools across all sectors — traditional public, public charter, and private schools in the choice programs. The data set shows a school’s racial makeup, socioeconomic status, enrollment counts, and English language learner counts and disability status.

As a result, we can create the most sophisticated analysis of school performance to date. Unlike DPI, WILL attempts to place all schools on a level playing field by accounting for each school’s socio-demographic characteristics of students and schools. Here’s the 2018 and 2017 Apples-to-Apples study.

Here are five findings for our upcoming report on school performance:

1. Milwaukee: Choice Schools Lead in Student Proficiency (even more significantly than DPI data suggests)

Wisconsin’s private and charter schools, much maligned by Governor Tony Evers and other leaders on the left, continue to succeed for Wisconsin students. Once schools are put on a level playing field, all types of charters show a proficiency advantage over traditional public schools (TPS). Led by schools like Carmen Middle/High School of Science and Technology in Milwaukee, non-instrumentalities have 12 percent higher proficiency in English and 13 percent higher proficiency in math on average than TPS. This dramatic performance positively exceeded every other sector measured.

Independent charter schools, schools in which the governor has attempted to freeze enrollment, exceeded TPS proficiency rates in math by 8 percent, as did instrumentality charters (for a brief primer on charter school types, look here). No effect of independent charters or instrumentalities was found for English. Private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have higher proficiency rates in both math and English. Proficiency was 4.7 percent higher in English, and about 4 percent higher in math than TPS. The inclusion of control variables widens these gaps in most cases, meaning that the results are more positive for choice schools than the data on DPI’s website which lacks controls.

These findings will be enlightening to Evers, who in an interview earlier this week declared vouchers to perform similar to students at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

2. Continued Improvement for Statewide Voucher Program

Though the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) is newer and smaller than the Milwaukee program, there is continuing evidence of a proficiency advantage in that program as well. Students in the WPCP (and Racine Parental Choice Program) had higher proficiency on the Forward Exam. Choice program students achieved 3.05 percent higher proficiency in English, while performance was similar in math.

3. Choice and Charter Schools Experience Improvements Over Last Three Years

For the first time, we had sufficient data on choice schools to compare sector performance based on student growth. Student growth is a measure of the change in performance at the student level from one school year to the next. Education reformers have long advocated for the inclusion of growth on the state report card, as students entering choice and charter schools have often fallen behind academically.

The results confirm what these reformers have been saying. Students in non-instrumentalities scored an incredible 19.0 points higher in growth than TPS students. Independent charter students scored 10.65 points higher growth, and MPCP students scored 6.96 points more. The results are replicated across the state: students in parental choice schools scored 6.84 points higher growth on average. This suggests that public schools are allowing students to fall behind, but the good news is that when students seek out schools that are a better fit for them, they are able to make up for lost ground.

4. Many of the top schools in the state are private and charter schools

For the second year in a row, our study includes a “School Value Added” measure that attempts to measure school quality based on the unique characteristics of the students in the school. Of the top 20 schools in the state four are private schools participating in the choice program. Another four are charter schools. Given the small share of total schools in the state that are in these sectors, this is an impressive percentage.

As we have noted in the past, the only schools in Milwaukee with the ability to have selective admissions policies are specialty schools within MPS. Some, like Reagan Preparatory School, have academic standards that must be met before admission. Some are Montessori schools that require students to continue in Montesorri education for their academic career. Choice and charter schools in Milwaukee are not legally allowed to have such standards, despite continual rhetoric that they discriminate somehow.

Once again, our research shows that selective MPS schools perform no different than traditional (neighborhood) MPS schools once socio-demographic data is accounted for. This is because selective MPS schools, likely due to admissions policies, consist of students that are, on average, higher income.

The final version of our study will go into greater depth on each of these issues, and more. But the bottom line is that choice and charter schools are working better for Wisconsin students. These schools offer higher student outcomes, a greater chance to go to college, and a greater chance to stay out of the criminal justice system, all at a lower cost to taxpayers. While it is heartening that the legislature has removed from the budget most of Evers’s attacks on school choice, it is important that policymakers remain vigilant.

Will Flanders

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