Selected readings on US charter schools
MADISON, Wis. – School choice in Wisconsin has come a long way since the late 1980s, when Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Milwaukee led the national school voucher revolution.
What began as a few private religious schools serving a few hundred public school children in inner-city Milwaukee has swelled to scores of schools reaching nearly 25,000 students – most among the poorest of the poor.
In 2012, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program expanded into neighboring city Racine, where 11 schools boast enrollment of more than 500 students total. Racine private schools expect to open 500 more spots next year after state-imposed caps on voucher recipients expire, according to Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that supports parent’s rights to choose their children’s education.
School choice has grown by leaps and bounds in Wisconsin over the past three decades, including the introduction of public charter schools and virtual schools, institutions not bound by the same rules as traditional public schools.
Students Learn More
While national choice and traditional school advocates debate the success of non-traditional K-12 education models, proponents of Milwaukee’s choice schools point to real achievement gains.
The School Choice Demonstration Project, which tracked two grade-level peer groups in Milwaukee Public Schools and the choice program, found the latter posted higher graduation rates—76 percent to MPS’ 69 percent among students who began ninth grade in 2006. The difference was less pronounced for eighth-grade students in the same year, with 73.7 percent of choice students graduating from high school to 71.6 percent of MPS students.
Overall, the research summarized that enrolling in private school increases the likelihood of students graduating from high school and enrolling and persisting in post-secondary education by 4 percent to 7 percent.
Cut Costs by Half
And the choice program educates students at about half the taxpayer cost as Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee Parental Choice schools receive per-pupil vouchers of $6,442, compared to $13,239 in tax dollars per student who attend MPS traditional schools, according to School Choice Wisconsin.
A 2010 fiscal impact report on Milwaukee choice schools shows the state was able to redirect $74 million in aid to public school districts outside of Milwaukee, thanks to per-pupil cost savings at choice schools.
Those funding inequities are sure to be a topic of discussion in the Legislature’s education debate this session, which will focus on whether to further expand and better fund choice schools.
“We’re saying it does cost a certain amount of money to provide a high quality education for children,” Brown said.
The school-choice advocate said private schools aren’t asking for the same level of taxpayer funding the state gives Milwaukee public schools, but they would like to receive the same $7,775 per-pupil funding as the state’s charter schools. Besides, Brown said, it has been a long time since choice schools have seen any aid increase.
“Given the fact that you have another school reform model in charter schools receiving significantly more money, you have to ask, ‘Is the child in a choice school worth less?’”
Mixed Charter Studies
Academic studies on charter schools have been mixed. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, points to a 2009 Stanford University study as proof of inherent inadequacies in the charter school system.
“It was found that there are some very successful charter schools,” WEAC noted in an informational paper. “However, the authors report that … in the aggregate, students in charter schools (are) not faring as well as students in traditional schools.”
That assertion, however, cites a report that in reality shows 63 percent of charter school students were performing as well as or significantly better than students in traditional public schools.
National School Choice Week Energy
While choice advocates have had their battles with public schools over the years, a host of players from the education community will come together Jan. 30 to celebrate National School Choice Week.
National School Choice Week chartered a historic rail car and is organizing the school choice movement’s first cross-country, whistle-stop train tour to “galvanize public support for enhanced educational options.” The 14-city tour made its sixth stop in Milwaukee.
An array of education organizations hosted a breakfast reception at the Grain Exchange, including School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, Milwaukee Public Schools, Democrats for Education Reform, and Hispanics for School Choice.
Improving Voucher Laws
In the current legislative session, Brown said, school choice advocates are not only calling on lawmakers to expand choice options, they also would like a dual funding system that pumps more resources into choice high schools because high school education is typically more expensive than elementary education.
“What we really want to do is open up choice, to allow schools to innovate and to allow parents to pick the winners, and not bureaucrats,” Brown said. “As schools innovate, their partners will begin to innovate and the result will be better education for our kids and more efficient costs for taxpayers.”