Data Wonk

The Paradox of Voucher Schools

They work better than MPS schools for minority students. Yet most Democrats oppose them.

By - Apr 21st, 2021 03:27 pm
Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly.

Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly.

Strangely, this year’s spring election for Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction was dominated by the issue of school choice: whether the candidates support state-funded vouchers to students for tuition at certain private schools. Because of the prominence of attacks on the choice program in the election, I decided to take a look at student achievement at public and private schools serving a high-poverty student population.

For data, I used the 2018-2019 School Report Card issued by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). This is the most recent school report card; the 2019-2020 one was skipped because the pandemic shut down testing last year.

This analysis focused on high poverty schools, where at least 90% of students are “economically disadvantaged.” All told, 91 public schools and 54 private schools in Wisconsin fit that description. While the sample was not limited to Milwaukee, it turned out to be heavily Milwaukee-centric: 45 of the private schools are in Milwaukee and 76 of the public schools are part of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Based on test scores, student growth and other factors, the DPI comes up with an “overall accountability score.” This number is used to place the school into one of five “overall accountability ratings,” as shown in the graph below.

The graph shows the percentages of public schools (in purple) and private schools (in rust) in each of the five ratings. This chart suggests that private schools in the voucher program have been more successful as a group in meeting the needs of high-poverty students.

This impression is supported by taking the mean of the scores. The mean score of 74 for private schools translates to “exceeds expectations” and 62 for public schools “Meets few expectations.”

Accountability scores: schools with 90% poverty

Accountability scores: schools with 90% poverty

As noted, schools that accept vouchers are overwhelmingly concentrated in Milwaukee, both because that is where the program started and because the city has the greatest number of poor Wisconsin children. That may explain a seeming anomaly in Marquette Law School polling.

Over the years the predominant position of the American left has been opposed to proposals to allow public funding for poor students to attend private schools. This is illustrated by the response by Madison voters to a proposal to provide vouchers for private or religious schools, as shown in the graph below from August of last year.

In Madison opposition (in red) to vouchers beats support (in green) by a ratio of two to one. Milwaukee is almost as lopsidedly Democratic as Madison. Yet a strong majority of Milwaukee respondents liked vouchers. What explains this? Perhaps because many of the voters have had experience with voucher schools or had friends or family members who used vouchers.

Provide tax-funded vouchers to be used for private or religious schools

Provide tax-funded vouchers to be used for private or religious schools

The next graph summarizes answers to a poll taken in April of the previous year to a proposed freeze on voucher school enrollment (as well as suspending new charter schools). A strong majority of Milwaukeeans opposed the freeze. (Keep in mind, however, that by the time the pollsters sliced their sample to get the Milwaukee voters, the number was pretty small: 26 answered the poll below, 61 responded to the previous one.)

Freeze voucher school enrollment and suspend new charter schools?

Freeze voucher school enrollment and suspend new charter schools?

At the start of this article, I described this assault as “strange.” There are several reasons why.

First, the effort seems mis-targeted. While the Superintendent of Public Instruction is charged with administering the program and can certainly make life harder for school administrators, major policy changes come from the governor and Legislature. School board members have even less control over school vouchers.

A second reason is political. In attacking vouchers, the Democratic Party is attacking a significant part of its base. Most of the families sending their children to the group of high-poverty private schools are Black or Hispanic. Less than one percent are white. Do Democrats really oppose assisting poor non-white voters in seeking to improve their children’s educational progress?

By attacking vouchers, the Democratic Party is violating its own values. Traditionally, Democrats support giving minorities and poor people more options, not closing off options. An example is the expansion of affordable health care. This is even true elsewhere in education. The Pell Grant does not tell the student what college to attend.

Third, the voucher controversy crowds out issues that impact students in a more significant way and become an excuse for why school systems cannot become more effective. A current example is the federal pandemic grants to schools. As the next chart shows, the grants are calculated the same way that previous Title 1 payments were calculated—using district poverty—but the payments are much greater. For once, MPS benefits from its student’s poverty.

How can the money be best spent to help student achievement? Some things are obvious—upgrading technology and summer school—but $11,000 per pupil is a lot of money to spend wisely. Rather than the attacks on vouchers that dominated the campaign, it would have been more useful to hear the candidates’ ideas for how the DPI could help school districts to overcome the effects of the pandemic-caused reduction of in-person education.

Federal pandemic aid vs. poverty

Federal pandemic aid vs. poverty

Between 2001 and 2021, Milwaukee Public Schools enrollment has dropped from 97,985 to 71,510, a 27% decline. It is past time for the state and Milwaukee teachers unions and—surprisingly, liberal Democrats— to recognize that the present course is not working for MPS, stop trying to force low-income parents to send the kids to MPS, and take a serious look at how to compete with voucher schools.

Categories: Data Wonk, Education

11 thoughts on “Data Wonk: The Paradox of Voucher Schools”

  1. Mingus says:

    From day one, Republicans have always promoted Choice Program by constant, misleading, and vicious attacks on public eduction. There is intentionally no public input legislatively when policy relating to the Choice Program is considered. There is intentionally no policy that would give parents information on the turnover in Choice Schools after these State pupil count in September when these schools kick out students whom might be harder to teach. Choice schools might say they enroll all students but that doesn’t mean they will keep them. Since parents need to apply to a choice school, you would expect a high level of engagement in their child’s education which could account for higher achievement than a nearby public school.

  2. Ryan Cotic says:

    Wow it looks as though most of our citys children should be going to voucher schools. Why are ee still pouring money into MPS?

  3. says:

    Oh Bruce, Bruce, Bruce (Thompson),
    More pro-private school propaganda thinly disguised as data- driven analysis from a failed SB member and private school owner. Citing surveys with fewer than 100 respondents? Really, Bruce? MPS “ benefits” from the poverty of its families? Really, Bruce? What do you have to say about the millions of dollars siphoned from property taxes to support private, sectarian, and Non-union schools? I’m sure the view from your toney East Side porch gives you a special vantage point to trash public schools- the only schools who must educate ALL KIDS.

  4. says:

    Studies based on comparing school averages across sectors (private schools using vouchers versus public schools) ae inherently statistically inaccurate and Thomson knows that. The only way to measure the added value of attending a school is to compare students with similar demographic profiles and assigning them to different types of schools. After they have been enrolled in the schools for a reasonable time we then compare the academic “growth” they experienced over time. Such a study has not been done in recent memory. To complicate matters, parents who take the time to research and apply to a private school usually are more motivated and involved than those who just accept the public school assigned to their children. Finally, Thompson failed to distinguish between charter schools and choice schools, both of which accept vouchers. Generally speaking, charter schools have a better track record in producing higher academic achievement than choice schools. Wisconsin taxpayers are now being asked to pay private tuition costs for schools attended by middle class children, since they raised the family income threshold to qualify for the voucher. A program designed to help poor students is now being expanded to include relatively more affluent students.

  5. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Common on We should be by this kind of BS by now. While the Dems refuse along with MPS and you and Urban Milwaukee refuse to to acknowledge that the issue is one of developing brains of MPS students who are abused and the profound impact that has on them and then MPS suspending them etc. A new book by Perry and Oprah along with The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk I have submitted stuff which you and the rest have chosen to ignore rather than establish it truth or not. Give me a call 414 403 1341 and I will gladly begin a discussion Peace Tom Spellman

  6. weitenma83 says:

    Charter and choice achools skim off the best students, any problem or special needs students are left in the public schools.

  7. Mingus says:

    There is one other critical point that needs to be mentioned. Religious choice schools can legally discriminate against gay and lesbian students, their families, and any faculty member who support the rights of these persons while being financed with taxpayers money.

  8. sbaldwin001 says:

    These comments reflect some legitimate push-back. The analysis here is not based on a perfect experiment, and private/charter schools do have advantages in selectivity and parent activism. Nevertheless, two points are clear: One, the difference between the two systems is enormous. Two, the public school performance is not acceptable.

    I agree with those who believe private/charter schools should have the same selectivity and accountability criteria as public schools. Given this, however, there is a path forward that has not received attention. The lowest performing schools in both categories – public and private/charter – need to be closed so that their students and their resources can flow to the more successful schools. There should be no disagreement about this.

  9. SFGiants58 says:

    The critics here of Bruce’s piece sidestep the fact that he relies mainly in school ranking criteria developed during the Evers era at DPI. It is those rankings — DPI rankings — that put private voucher schools out in front.

  10. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Why is Urban Milwaukee allowing itself to be used by the Charter folks. To be a mouth piece for Charter Schools. Probably the most successful program was the 220 program and no media every covered that story the way it should have been covered. Yes those who chose to be part of the 220 program and knew the importance of quality education and knew that in large part Suburban Schools were very successful. Kids going to schools that work ie have little socially unacceptable behavior as part of the School’s culture for starters are successful schools. Again I asked either of the Bruce’s to call and neither did and so once again call me 414 403 1341. Successful education is all about the developing brains of the children.

  11. SFGiants58 says:

    As to the claims of Sepllman re Ch. 220, beginning on page 84 of the attached there is a discussion of how the program actually operated.

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