A new study reveals 40,000 Wisconsin students from 134 zip codes have no high-performing school options within ten miles of their homes.

The study by Will Flanders and Jessica Holmberg the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), “Without A Choice: Wisconsin’s High-performing School Deserts,” also shows rural areas have the most high-performing school deserts. Shawano County (11) and Langlade County (7) have the most ZIP codes without easy access to high-performing schools.

“Wisconsin famously pioneered school choice with the development of the Milwaukee voucher program,” said Flanders, research director for WILL. “But until every Wisconsin family has ready access to high-performing schools, the goal of school choice remains out of reach. We must do better to increase the number of high-performing schools in Wisconsin.”

The study split Wisconsin’s schools into three categories based upon the “value added” of the education received. The “value added” was calculated by controlling for demographics, determining what educational proficiency could be expected as a result, and then comparing the actual results with the expected results.

The highest one-third of the state’s schools were categorized “high performing,” the middle third categorized “medium” performing, and the lower third “low” performing.

Distance to a high-performing school is a significant factor in a parent’s determination of choosing a school, according to the study’s authors:

A 2015 study of school choice in New Orleans revealed that decreasing distance from home by .75 miles on average made parents willing
to accept a school rated one level lower on Louisiana’s A-F scale. Particularly in high-crime areas, minimizing the risk to children on their walk or bus ride is preeminent in parents’ minds. As such, the 10-mile range of search around each ZIP code may represent a conservative estimate of access to school quality for many families.

The study notes that the effect of private schools on these high-performing school deserts is hard to determine. Enrollment in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP), the statewide private school voucher program, is currently capped at 5% of a school district’s student population. Many schools do not have enough children in the program to meet the state’s reporting requirements.

“That said, evidence continues to build that the WPCP, and private school choice programs in general, produce better results at a lower cost to taxpayers,” the study’s authors wrote. “WPCP schools earn about 2.7% higher scores on the Forward Exam once a school’s demographic factors are taken into account.”

Policy Changes

WILL has a number of policy suggestions to tackle the high-performing school desert issue:

  1. Lift the caps on student enrollment in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.
  2. Create more charter school authorizers statewide to expand charter school options in rural areas.
  3. Make it easier for private and public charter schools to acquire vacant school buildings in rural areas.
  4. Expand part-time open enrollment to allow high school students to take online courses at other districts.
  5. Allow parents in these areas to access supplemental educational resources through Education Savings Accounts.

The high-performing school desert has a rural educator concerned.

“This report reveals that too many Wisconsin children, particularly in our rural communities, have no access to high performing schools,” said Wade Reimer, President of Shepherd’s Watch in Mattoon, WI. “Closing the education opportunity gap in Wisconsin must increasingly account for these children. They need real options, and soon.”

WILL is suing the Antigo School District on behalf of the organization because the district is blocking the sale of a vacant school, preventing Shepherd’s Watch from opening a private school in Mattoon.