Data Wonk

How Partisan Divide on Education Hurts State

Some schools with poor students have success. Why aren't we learning from that?

By - Mar 27th, 2024 02:30 pm
St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, 2607 S. 5th St. Photo by Dave Reid.

St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, 2607 S. 5th St. Photo by Dave Reid.

For more than 30 years, the education scene in Milwaukee has been marked by a partisan divide between two groups: supporters and opponents of vouchers that allow students to attend private schools at government expense. Although supporters of the original school choice program included prominent Democrats, such as state representative Annette Polly Williams, the bill’s sponsor, and Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, more recently the political support and opposition seems to have settled down along partisan lines.

As a broad generalization, conservative Republicans like Wisconsin’s school choice programs. This was reflected in the recent Republican legislative session that resulted in increased payments to voucher schools while continuing the recent practice of raising school districts’ allowable revenue limits by less than the inflation rate. This has had the effect of cutting public schools’ budget.

An extreme example of the Democratic opposition is illustrated by the recent unsuccessful attempt by Kirk Bangstad, the owner of the Minocqua Brewing Company, to bring a lawsuit in the Wisconsin Supreme Court against Wisconsin’s school choice programs. A statement on the firm’s website makes this claim: “The school voucher system, which siphons money out of the public school system and gives it to religious and private schools, not only hurts public schools but has been shown to actually hurt educational outcomes overall.”

The next graph shows a simplified view of Milwaukee student enrollment in three groups of schools. The first group consists of traditional public schools in which staff are employees of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The next group consists of schools which are chartered by one of three public agencies, including MPS, the City of Milwaukee, and UW-Milwaukee. Finally, there are private schools which accept vouchers.

These numbers are calculated by adding up the school enrollment numbers in the School Report Cards published by the state Department of Public Instruction. The green columns show enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, first year in which the report cards included the city in which the school was located. The yellow columns show enrollment during the 2022-23 school year, the year of the most recent report card.

These numbers show a decline of almost ten thousand in traditional public schools, essentially flat enrollment in charters, and an increase of a bit more than three thousand in voucher schools. I would argue that these numbers reflect the new reality: neither vouchers nor charter schools are going away.

The negative response to Bangstad’s petition by both Democratic Governor (and former Superintendent of Public Instruction) Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Supreme Court (which declined to hear the lawsuit) is consistent with this conclusion. Taking away the school chosen by parents who are predominantly minority and low income is not a good look for Democrats.

The partisan split between “good” schools and “bad” schools has two unfortunate results, in my view. The first is that it makes it easier to underfund education, as illustrated by the demise of the state’s commitment to pay two thirds of public education in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee School Enrollment.

Milwaukee School Enrollment.

Second, the fight over who runs the schools diverts attention from the far more important question: how to improve educational outcomes in Milwaukee. The next graph, also based on data in the 2022-23 school report cards, compares the average English Language Arts for each school to its poverty rate (the percentage of economically disadvantaged students). As poverty goes up, ELA achievement goes down.

The generalization is true of all three categories of school—traditional public schools, shown in blue, charter schools (in rust), and voucher schools (in gray). While this generalization is true of all three categories, there are a number of schools that apparently manage to defy it.

English Language Arts Achievement Scores vs. Poverty.

English Language Arts Achievement Scores vs. Poverty.

The next graph plots schools’ achievement scores on mathematics. Again, the same generalization applies: as poverty goes up, achievement goes down, but again, there are exceptions.

Mathematics Achievement Scores vs. Poverty.

Mathematics Achievement Scores vs. Poverty.

What can we learn from the exceptions, the schools that seem to succeed while serving large numbers of economically disadvantaged students? The concentration on the fight over vouchers and, to a lesser extent, over charter schools, has the deleterious effect of diverting attention from the much more critical matter of figuring out why certain schools seem to defy the odds and whether other schools can learn from this. It also leaves supporters of more state funding for schools divided, which hurts education across the board in Wisconsin.

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6 thoughts on “Data Wonk: How Partisan Divide on Education Hurts State”

  1. Ryan Cotic says:

    It seems fairly clear that the best way to increase outcomes for milwaukee school children is to expand voucher schools and eliminate mps.

  2. kenyatta2009 says:

    There is a concerted effort to defund our public school system and replace it with a voucher system and then blames the public system for not achieving the desired results.

  3. Mingus says:

    Bruce brings up a very good point in asking about “what can we learn from the exceptions.” There are always schools whose student population comes from poverty who defy the odds and have high test scores. I think of most recently Milwaukee Public Schools Pratt Elementary and historically Clarke Street School and Garden Homes. MPS never highlights these and other schools like them as models. Nor do we see the media go to these schools and find out what they are doing. When schools like this have test scores that drop significantly over several years, no one, including MPS administration, ever asks what happened.

  4. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Dear Bruce A year or maybe longer ago we talked about 2 books. Did you read them? “Why They Kill” and :The Body Keeps the Score”

    Maybe we should have a Urban Milwaukee Book Club and read these two books. How many times have I pointed out that kids who are ABUSED are traumatized and the trauma causes BRAIN injuries. Kids who have brain injuries use socially unacceptable behavior as a response to the Abuse.

    It really is not that complicated. Yes in order to maintain the statuesque we have to ignore the abuse that the kids are experiencing and say that the problem is MPS.

    Now MPS does not do itself any favors for who knows what reasons. The Montessori Schools in MPS are very successful and yet no press, no acknowledgement etc. WHY?

    There are other schools that are successful and those principles are not given oversight of 2 or 3 more schools where the assistant principals in training are applying the PROVEN strategy.

    Unfortunately if you want to make more money in MPS you become an administrator and then you move up the line. Now 35 years ago at Riverside a GREAT biology teacher who taught AP Biology decided that he could make more money if he became an Assistant Principal and so the kids lost a truly great teacher. I am sure we all have MPS stories about why MPS is not more successful but it comes down to the kids and how much ABUSE they have experienced and are suffering.

  5. weitenma83 says:

    The charter and voucher schools can pick and choose their students. Any child with behavorial problems will be not be tolerated at a charter and or a voucher school. These children get dumped back to MPS. The vast majority of Special Ed students will not be accepted at charter or voucher schools either because those schools don’t have any Special Ed staff. 20% of MPS students are classified as Special Ed.

  6. Thomas Sepllman says:


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