Research & Commentary: Wisconsin School Choice Students Are Outperforming Their Public School Peers

Published April 26, 2018

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has released its second annual peer-reviewed study of school academic performance across the Badger State, revealing charter schools and 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 2018, WILL Research Director Will Flanders finds that students in Wisconsin’s multiple voucher programs – the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), Racine Parental Choice Program, Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, and Special Needs Scholarship Program – are outperforming their TPS peers in English language arts (ELA) proficiency by 2.5 percentage points. Charter school students also score 2.28 percentage points higher in ELA proficiency than their TPS peers. On the ACT standardized test, voucher students statewide score 0.678 points higher, on average, than their TPS peers. Charter students also score 0.503 points higher.

Students participating in MPCP, the state’s largest school choice program by participation and the oldest private school choice program in the country, outperform students in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) by 4.33 percentage points in math proficiency and 5.83 percentage points in ELA proficiency.

Flanders 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.

Independent Milwaukee charter school students were found to outperform their MPS peers by 8.52 percentage points in math and 5.36 percentage points in reading. Students in non-instrumentality charter schools – charter schools under district supervision, but with a wider latitude of freedom than TPS – outperform their MPS peers by 12.1 percentage points in math proficiency and 15.4 percentage points in ELA proficiency.

The results of these school choice programs should not be surprising. In May 2016, EdChoice released a report in which it examines 100 empirical studies of private school choice programs, 18 of which used the “gold standard” random assignment to measure outcomes. The available empirical evidence on these private school choice programs makes it clear they have a positive impact on the academic performance of participating students, while doing so at a lower cost than public schools, and while simultaneously benefitting public school studentsdecreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

Besides these academic achievements, studies have shown 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.

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.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

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.

2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government
This annual EdChoice survey, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

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 School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?
This report by Jeff Spalding of EdChoice provides a program-for-program breakdown of school voucher costs and savings. On the whole, Spalding says these programs have provided a cumulative savings of $1.3 billion since 2007, or roughly $3,400 per pupil.


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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