Tuesday in Wisconsin, the newest K-12 school report cards were released. With student growth now measured, the report card results are astonishing, perhaps unprecedented, for school choice and require the attention of the education reform community.
Ask any teacher, and she will tell you that not all of her students enter the classroom on the first day of school at exactly the same level of knowledge. Some students will be ahead of the proverbial curve, and some students, unfortunately, will be behind it. This reality is problematic when one attempts to compare the performance of schools and school districts to each other. It is somewhat unfair, for example, to expect the same level of achievement from a school with many students who are two years behind academically to schools where students are more on track. Traditionally, however, this is exactly how schools have been judged—by a set level of achievement for which all students are judged to be failing or succeeding.
School choice programs – private schools in voucher programs and public charter schools – are particularly susceptible to this. These programs are specifically designed for students who may not be getting what they need in a traditional school setting. In many cases, this may mean that the student has fallen behind academically. Moreover, many choice programs, such as the voucher programs in Wisconsin, are limited to families below certain income thresholds, which are correlated with lowered achievement. Even though research shows that choice programs generally outperform similar students in public schools in high quality research, school choice practitioners regularly complain that they are not given credit for the growth they achieve with students who are often coming to them from public schools with incredible deficits.
Fortunately, alternative measures of school performance exist that allow for fairer comparisons between schools with varying compositions of students. Growth models take into account where a student is starting from academically, and make predictions about where that kid will be in a year on average. These models are increasingly popular throughout the country as a measure of student achievement. They are so intuitive even Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a vocal school choice critic, can understand the benefits.
That said, student growth has rarely been examined in relation to school choice. Until now. For the first time, comparable growth scores have been made available for Wisconsin’s parental choice programs this year.
Under the new growth measures in the state report card, the positive results for Wisconsin’s school choice programs are staggering. Students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program experienced approximately 8 percent more growth than students in similar public schools. In the Racine Parental Choice Program, the results were even stronger. Students in Racine’s choice schools experienced about 24 percent more growth than students in public schools. Similar results were found for Wisconsin's charter schools, which also offer an important alternative to traditional public education. Such dramatic levels of growth could mean the difference in a child needing to attend summer school, or even being held back.
These findings also damage the claim of school choice opponents that choice programs are ‘creaming the crop’ of public school kids. According to this argument, the families that select into choice and charter schools are already somewhat higher achieving than those that remain in traditional public schools. These results show the opposite. Children enter Wisconsin’s school choice programs with very real learning deficits, which the schools are proving quite effective at addressing over time.
These students may still be a bit behind their peers from more well-off parts of the state. But the growth data suggests that they are catching up. For countless families of struggling students throughout Milwaukee and Racine, school choice programs are proving to be a path forward out of failure.
Will Flanders (@WillFlandersWI) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.