Avoiding a rush to judgment in Milwaukee

UPDATE: A team of university researchers is releasing data showing more comprehensive results on the performance of students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program than the state of Wisconsin has shown, according to a story in today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The team, which includes professors John F. Witte of the University of Wisconsin and Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas, have tracked the performance of a sampling of children in the choice program over three years and found that the students performed about the same as their peers in Milwaukee Public Schools, not worse. The day before, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released data showing that half the students at either setting read at grade level, but that district students far outperformed choice students in math.  The university team also found that a sampling of ninth-graders in the voucher program had slightly higher rates of graduation and enrollment at a four-year college than a matched sampling of students in the school district.  

The results of Milwaukee’s first comparative assessment of students in the Parental Choice Program and those of their peers in the school district have uncorked the kind of responses one might expect from an education policy that has divided the community for more than 20 years. But that does more to highlight the political strains of the voucher program than it does to explain the performance of its 21,000 students.

This is not to dismiss the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s data, which showed that the low-income students in the choice program performed similiarly to their traditional public school peers on free or reduced-price lunch in some ways, and worse in others. About half the students in either setting are reading at grade level. But only 34.4 percent of choice students scored proficiently in math, compared to 43.9 percent among low-income pupils at Milwaukee Public Schools. 

That’s certainly not good news for the choice program, but it’s hardly the occasion to tell the low-income parents who’ve chosen to participate that they’ve been “bamboozled,” as one Democratic representative told the Wisconsin State Journal. As University of Wisconsin political science professor John Witte noted, “in order to study achievement growth and gain, you have to study individual students over time.” Witte has been among the most clear-eyed and careful scholars to study the academic impact of school vouchers generally and the Milwaukee program specifically, and his careful response to yesterday’s news should better inform the state’s own superintendent of instruction. Shamefully, state Superintendent Tony Evers distributed a news release statewide showcasing that Milwaukee public schools do it better. 

Such a move from Wisconsin’s top educator does nothing to advance the debate over how best to educate our most disadvantaged children in the 21st century. We have a growing array of educational alternatives from which to choose in our public education systems and we should be careful to avoid singling out one option as better than another. Milwaukee’s program was created in 1990 at the urging of a Democratic representative who wanted to empower her low-income and mostly minority constituency with the same ability to choose a private or even faith-based alternative that wealthier families had long enjoyed.

This response may seem to avoid the reality of the data. I don’t argue that test scores are insignificant, but just as in traditional schools, they are best judged over time. Florida’s tax credit scholarship for low-income students suffered the same criticism two years ago. Northwestern University professor David Figlio examined the performance on the Stanford Achievement Test of students in the scholarship program, as commissioned by the state, and found they made the same gains as students of all income levels nationally. The same achievement was not good enough for critics, but Figlio later cautioned against a rush to judgment. “I feel we need to have stronger causal evidence on the relative effectiveness of the program,” he told the St. Petersburg Times.

All schools need to be held accountable for learning, and Milwaukee’s record of reaching low-income students through either traditional programs or choice leaves considerable room for improvement. But after 20 years, Milwaukee’s public school system should have learned to co-exist with schools like St. Thomas Aquinas Academy or Yeshiva Elementary, which can rightfully be called “public” by any definition. Instead of thumbing his nose, Superintendent Evers should work to find common ground to ensure the poorest and lowest-achieving among us enjoy every opportunity that meets their needs.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit