Research & Commentary: Study Finds Wisconsin Private Schools are Much More Cost-Effective than Traditional Public Schools

Published May 23, 2019

The Wisconsin Legislature made the right move when it discarded most of Gov. Tony Evers’ proposals to stem the tide of parental choice in education. These proposals included banning the creation of new charter schools until 2023, capping the student enrollment in three of the state’s four school voucher programs beginning in 2021, and phasing out the Special Needs Scholarship Program voucher.

A new study from Corey DeAngelis, the Reason Foundation’s director of school choice, finds these choice programs have been much more cost-effective than the Badger State’s traditional public schools (TPS). Using information gleaned from the state’s Accountability Report Cards, the report finds Wisconsin private schools receive 27 percent less funding than TPS, yet they produce 2.27 more points on these report cards for every $1,000 invested,  making them 36 percent more cost-effective than TPS. 

In Milwaukee, home of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the state’s largest school choice program by participation (more than 28,000 students) and the oldest private school choice program in the country, DeAngelis found private schools are 50 percent more cost effective. In Racine, home of the Parental Private School Choice Program (more than 3,300 participating students), private schools are 75 percent more cost effective.

“This study suggests Wisconsin’s private schools…tend to do more with less,” DeAngelis concludes. “Student-centered funding might give the Badger State’s district-run public schools stronger financial incentives to become more efficient. In addition, giving district-run public school principals more autonomy regarding budgeting decisions could similarly lead to efficiency improvements. Since education dollars are scarce resources, and because choice schools have strong financial incentives to spend money wisely, policymakers should consider allowing 100 percent of public funding to follow students to whatever type of school works best for them.”

This is not the first study to show the efficacy of Wisconsin’s choice programs. A 2018 study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) found students in Wisconsin’s multiple voucher programs are outperforming their TPS peers in English language arts (ELA) proficiency by 2.5 percentage points. On the ACT standardized test, voucher students statewide score 0.678 points higher, on average, than their TPS peers. Students participating in MPCP outperform students in Milwaukee Public Schools by 4.33 percentage points in math proficiency and 5.83 percentage points in ELA proficiency.

The study notes the “main drivers of the performance advantage of school choice relative to MPS” are Milwaukee’s Catholic and Lutheran schools. Catholic school students had a math proficiency rate 7.53 percentage points higher than their MPS peers and a reading proficiency rate that was 14.9 percentage points greater. Lutheran school students’ proficiency rate in math was also higher than their MPS peers, by 8.54 percentage points.

Besides these academic achievements, studies 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.

Based on what we know about the educational benefits of school choice programs in general and on 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 on school choice programs.

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.

Apples to Apples: The Definitive Look at School Test Scores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin for 2018
This second 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, as well as on standardized tests such as the ACT.

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.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Lindsey Stroud, a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.