Add this to the trove of largely unreported news about Milwaukee’s private voucher schools and the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS):

In the last three years, the percent of voucher students attending schools ranked highest by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has nearly tripled. During the same period the share of MPS students at similar schools has barely grown.

DPI report cards rank schools in five categories. The two highest are “exceeds expectations” and “significantly exceeds expectations.”  

Following last week’s release of DPI’s 2018-19 report cards, School Choice Wisconsin (SCW) took a three-year look at how many Milwaukee students were enrolled in the highest categories.  

The results are stunning:  

2016-17 — Three years ago, only 20% of voucher students were enrolled in schools with the highest two rankings.  The comparable number for MPS was slightly higher — 23%.

2018-19 — Last year 58% of voucher students were enrolled in the higher ranked schools (compared to 26% of MPS students).

In other words, using DPI criteria, schools enrolling voucher students demonstrated notable progress while the status quo persisted in MPS.*

What explains the disparity? A key factor is the success of private schools in spurring meaningful growth in academic achievement. DPI uses a weighted average scoring measure that includes (1) student achievement and (2) growth in achievement.  

In communities with a high proportion of economically disadvantaged (ECD) students, DPI gives more weight to growth in achievement and less to the current level of achievement. In cities such as Milwaukee year-to-year growth is a key factor in DPI rankings.  

Private schools enrolling voucher students have had greater success than has MPS in achieving growth. This conclusion is reinforced by the DPI release in September of test scores that showed better results for choice students than MPS students on the college-readiness ACT exam. Those results also showed generally better academic proficiency scores for choice students.

In absolute terms, of course, levels of academic achievement in Milwaukee are simply too low. A sizable majority of city students don’t achieve what the state defines as proficiency in key subjects.  

At the same time, the data assembled by SCW show that private schools enrolling voucher students are making substantially more progress than are MPS students.  These private schools are doing so with a fraction of the financial resources available to MPS.  

*The MPS results are artificially inflated by the inclusion of charter schools that operate completely independent of MPS governance. If the results of those schools are excluded then only 20% — not 26% — of MPS students are at schools with the two highest rankings.