Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

Dispelling myths about school choice


Patrick Wolf and John Witte, in an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday, completely demolished some of the myths surrounding school choice.

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers. Ravitch claimed in a Nov. 5 blog post that private schools no longer have to administer the state accountability test to their voucher students and post the results, but that assertion is and always was false.

Third, some types of independent public charter schools in Milwaukee are delivering positive value-added results to their students compared to similar students in MPS. Students in public charter schools that had converted from being private schools in the voucher program showed reading gains that were significantly higher than those of matched MPS students. Overall, the student achievement gains for all independent charter school students were higher than those of similar MPS students, but the differences were not statistically significant.

The voucher and charter school sectors in Milwaukee are delivering these modestly better student outcomes at a dramatically lower cost to the public. Average per-pupil taxpayer costs of students in MPS were $15,969 in fiscal year 2011 compared to just $9,718 for independent charter schools and less than $6,442 per voucher student. Economist Robert Costrell determined that the operation of the voucher program alone saved the public over $52 million in fiscal year 2011.

Competition from the voucher and charter sectors has increased student achievement in MPS, however modestly, a consistent finding of six studies from different research teams.

Ravitch charged that choice schools “skim off the ablest students and reject ones they don’t want.” There is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, we had to match the voucher students in our study to the more disadvantaged subgroup of MPS students because the voucher students are more likely to be low-income and low-achieving when they enter school than the average MPS student.

Although fewer students in the voucher program are officially classified as in special education, we determined that is largely because private schools hesitate to assign a special education label to struggling students. When we tracked the same set of Milwaukee students who moved between the voucher program and MPS, we found that they were much more likely to be labeled “special education” when in MPS.

By the way, there is a special breakfast on January 30th at the Grain Exchange celebrating National School Choice Week.

National School Choice Week has chartered a historic railcar and is organizing the school choice movement’s first cross-country, whistle-stop train tour to galvanize public support for enhanced
educational options. This 14-city tour makes its sixth stop here in Milwaukee!

Join us as we discuss the importance of great schools from all sectors – from traditional public schools, to “choice schools” in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, to public charter schools.

Recently, I wrote about my own family’s experience with educational choice and what it means to my son Will. Choice has always been an important issue to me, and now it’s even more important because it’s personal.

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