Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The choice should be clear: say no to state voucher expansion

Studies indicate that choice schools do little to improve, on average, students' marks

U.S. News and World Report recently reported on rankings for graduation rates across the nation, released by the National Center for Education Statistics. While 78 percent of high schoolers nationwide completed their four-year degree (the best since 1974), Wisconsin saw an even better rate of completion, with more than 91 percent of students graduating high school in 2010.

That rate puts Wisconsin at number two across the nation, just behind Vermont. It’s a distinction that we should be proud of, one that demonstrates as a prime example our dedication towards education in the Badger state.

Unfortunately, that distinction may not be around for long: the data comes from graduates in the 2009-10 school year, before Gov. Scott Walker made the largest cuts to schools in our state’s history.

Now, with class sizes increased and resources cut in schools across Wisconsin, Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans are set to embark on expanding a new set of “reforms” they say will help our children: school vouchers.

Expansion of voucher program, proponents argue, would allow students to take the funds ordinarily given to their public school district and use them in private schools of their choice. The idea here is entirely capitalistic: parents will select only the best schools for their children to go to, and those that “fail” will see less enrollment.

But that idea removes much needed funds from schools already burdened with cuts. Having already lost hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue statewide, how much more can our public schools take?

Aside from that, there’s little evidence to suggest that voucher schools do better than public schools. The largest piece of evidence comes from Milwaukee, where a voucher program has been in place for more than twenty years.

Studies have shown that, overall, the students who qualify for a voucher and enter a new school have shown little-to-no improvement when compared to their counterparts who stayed in the Milwaukee Public School district. In fact, more evidence points to the contrary: that students in the voucher system performed worse.

When you compare reading and math scores from the 2010-11 school year (PDF), MPS schools show the same or better performances than average choice schools. In reading, the number of students who scored “proficient or advanced” in MPS were 60.7 percent, and 56.2 percent for students in MPS who were lower-income. Choice school students (who are all lower-income) had 52.3 percent of its students score “proficient or advanced.”

Green indicates measures where MPS students who are economically disadvantaged outperform choice school students. Red indicates measures where choice school students outperform MPS students. Blue indicates measures where neither MPS students nor choice school students outperform by more than three percent.
In eighth and tenth grades, the choice school students did outperform their MPS-counterparts in reading, but not by a statistically significant amount.

Overall, in fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, the number of choice school students who scored “proficient or advanced” in testing was only greater than MPS students who were economically disadvantaged in four categories: eighth grade reading and science, and tenth grade reading and science.

MPS students who were lower-income, meanwhile, outperformed their choice school counterparts in five of the categories: eighth and tenth grade math, and all three fourth grade subjects tested (math, reading, and science).

When looking at the numbers closer, it reveals that the differences where the choice school students fared better were particularly negligible. Of the four categories listed above where choice schools had a higher percentage of students performing at “proficient or advanced” testing levels, three of those categories are within only three percentage points, meaning that they performed at basically the same levels.

Choice schools outperformed MPS students facing economic challenges by more than three percent in only one of the nine categories listed above; those MPS students, on the other hand, outperformed choice students by more than three percent in four of the five categories they did better in.

Choice schools don’t make MPS students do better -- at best, the students who enter the voucher program do about the same as their MPS peers do. At worst, their marks go lower than desired.

Now, poised with an insurmountable majority in both houses of the state legislature, Gov. Walker has a choice of his own. Expand the voucher program, or fund the public schools he recently gutted.

Which choice do you want him to make?


  1. it's worse than that. If you can get the data to separate out performance of non-disabled children (the vast majority of whom are in MPS, not voucher schools), it's clear that for regular education MPS far outperforms the vouchers.

  2. Here's a piece from May 2011 that does the work on separating out the disability data: Milwaukee Vouchers: Compare Apples-to-Apples, See What's Rotten

    And here's the data directly, for all grades together, comparing Choice students without disabilities to lower income MPS students without disabilities:

    MPS-FRL, No SwD ---- 64.3% proficient in Reading
    Choice, No SwD ----- 55.8% proficient in Reading

    MPS-FRL, No SwD ---- 49.9% proficient in Math
    Choice, No SwD ----- 34.8% proficient in Math

    The source table is here.