Research & Commentary: Wisconsin Students in School Choice Programs Outperform Public School Peers

Published July 18, 2019

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has released its third annual peer-reviewed study of school academic performance across the Badger State, revealing private schools participating in the state’s school choice programs are outperforming traditional public schools (TPS).

In Apples to Apples: The Definitive Look at School Test Scores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin for 2019, WILL Research Director Will Flanders finds that students in Wisconsin’s multiple voucher programs—the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP), Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP), and Special Needs Scholarship Program—are outperforming their TPS peers in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics proficiency.

In Milwaukee, MPCP schools had proficiency rates 4.65 percent higher in ELA and 3.95 percent in math, respectively, than Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Schools participating in RPCP and WPCP also showed proficiency rates 3 percent higher in ELA. Student growth, how much they increase their performance from one year to the next was 7 percent higher in MPCP than MPS and was 6.8 percent higher in RPCP and WPCP.

As in previous years of the study, WILL finds Catholic and Lutheran schools are the main driver in the proficiency advantage MPCP schools hold over MPS. MPCP Catholic schools were 8.9 percent more proficient in ELA and 4.1 percent higher in math than in similar TPS. Lutheran schools were 7.1 percent more proficient in math than TPS.

This is not the only good news to come out about Wisconsin’s school choice programs in 2019. A Reason Foundation study from May found Wisconsin private schools receive 27 percent less funding than TPS, yet they produce 2.27 more points on the state’s Accountability Report Cards for every $1,000 invested, making them 36 percent more cost-effective than TPS. Private schools in Milwaukee are 50 percent more cost effective, and private schools in Racine are 75 percent more cost effective than TPS in those cities.

Another study, published in Social Science Quarterly, showed persistent, long-term participation in MPCP can lead to decreased criminal activity for Milwaukee children later in life. Earlier research show high school students participating in MPCP have lower levels of criminality than their MPS peers, and MPCP students are expected to generate almost $475 million in additional economic benefits “associated with higher graduation rates” from 2016 to 2035.

Copious other empirical research on school programs in Wisconsin and elsewhere shows these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Furthermore, school choice programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

Based on what we know about the educational benefits of school choice programs in general and Wisconsin’s students in particular, it is not out of bounds to say an expansion of the programs that would make them completely open to all students is well-deserving. The goal of public education in Wisconsin today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about school choice programs.

Apples to Apples: The Definitive Look at School Test Scores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin for 2019
This third annual peer-reviewed study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty compares school academic performance across Wisconsin and finds students participating in the state’s private school choice programs are outperforming their traditional public school peers in math and reading proficiency.

A Wise Investment: The Productivity of Public and Private Schools of Choice in Wisconsin
This study from Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation, calculating school cost-effectiveness by dividing Wisconsin’s Accountability Report Card score for each school by the public dollars invested in each school, finds that private and independent charter schools in the Badger State tend to be more cost-effective than district-run public schools in the state overall and for the vast majority of individual cities.

Left Behind: How Wisconsin Struggles to Educate Gifted & Talented Students – and How ESAs Can Help
This Policy Brief from Will Flanders, research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argues Wisconsin is struggling to educate gifted and talented students and explains how an ESA program may help the problem.

Education Savings Accounts – a Primer for 21st Century Education Policy
This report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty explores why Wisconsin policymakers should consider an ESA program, the ESA programs already in place in other states, and challenges and criticisms of ESAs.

Do Voucher Students Attain Higher Levels of Education? Extended Evidence from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
This study by Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte, and Brian Kisida for the Urban Institute shows that students that attended private schools in 2006 through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program generally enrolled in college at higher rates and persisted in college longer than similar students at public schools. 

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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