Wisconsin kids enrolled in private school choice programs aren’t performing as well as their public school counterparts on standardized exams, according to data released Tuesday by the state’s Department of Public Instruction, sparking another round of partisan debate about whether taxpayers should be funding voucher programs.

“The report confirms what many of us have been saying, which is that the voucher program is a poor investment for Wisconsin taxpayers,” says state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, who sits on the Senate’s Committee on Education and is a candidate for governor. “We see unprecedented cuts to education and higher education in this state, yet we’ve seen the expansion of the voucher program. While I think it’s wise to invest our tax dollars in programs that we know can improve academic performance, we don’t see that in the data released (Tuesday).”

Students in both the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and Racine’s Parental Private School Choice Program (PPSCP) took the same statewide standardized tests as public school students in November.

According to the results of these 2011 Wisconsin Student Assessment System exams, 48.6 percent of Milwaukee Public School students scored proficient or advanced in mathematics, compared to 39.9 percent attending Milwaukee choice schools. In reading, 58.2 percent of Milwaukee students attending public schools were proficient or advanced compared to 56.3 percent of those attending Milwaukee choice schools.

“Looking at the scores for Milwaukee, what strikes me most is that the average student in Milwaukee (whether in a public school or a choice school) does significantly worse than the average economically disadvantaged student statewide,” state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Education, told the Cap Times in an email. “I’m not as concerned with the difference between the choice and traditional public schools as I am about the fact that both have far too few students at proficiency.”

The results in Racine, which is in the first year of hosting a voucher program, indicate 61.5 percent of the public school students in that district were proficient or advanced in math compared to 50.8 percent for students in that city’s private school choice program. In reading, 69.2 percent of the Racine public school students were proficient or advanced compared to 55.7 percent for those attending a private school choice program.

“I think what these numbers show is these voucher students are not doing better than their peers in the public schools, so why are we doing this?” says Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, who sits on the Assembly’s Committee on Education. “We cut Milwaukee public school funding by about 10 percent this year, while increasing the Milwaukee voucher program by about 10 percent. And they’re still not doing better than the public schools. All these promises we’ve been hearing from the voucher folks for all these years are just not panning out.”

John Witte, a UW-Madison political science professor and a national expert on voucher programs, counters that some of his most recent research is suggesting that while math scores between public and voucher school students in Milwaukee are similar, kids attending the private schools are starting to make strides in reading.

“We do estimates on learning growth with more complicated models,” Witte says of the five-year, Milwaukee Parental Choice Program Longitudinal Educational Growth Study he helps oversee. “And although in the prior three years we have not reported any difference between the public and voucher schools, we’re starting to see reading scores that are significantly higher” for those who attend choice schools.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s figures did indicate that the number of Milwaukee voucher students who showed they were proficient or advanced in math jumped 6 percent compared to a year ago, although those scoring in those categories for reading increased only by about 1 percent.

Witte stresses that even though some voucher schools are showing progress according to his project’s figures, the overall results are a mixed bag.

“On the upper end, some of the MPCP schools are doing even better than the best public schools in Milwaukee -- and on the low end they do probably worse,” he says. “Nobody has ever claimed that this is a magic bullet for anything. But I do think (the voucher program) provides some families with an opportunity for students to find a better home in these private schools than they found in the public schools. Some don’t, but there is a percentage for which it works, and it seems to me that given the dynamics of an urban school system, if you can find something that works for some people, it’s at least worth keeping around.”

Voucher programs allow people to send their kids to a private school using public dollars. Milwaukee's voucher program, which started more than two decades ago, is both the nation’s first and largest such initiative.

The 2011-13 state budget signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker was a boon to school choice advocates in Wisconsin. First, the bill expanded the voucher program beyond Milwaukee for the first time, allowing students in Racine to use vouchers to attend private schools beginning last fall. The biennial budget also lifted the cap on the number of students who can participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and nearly doubled the income limit for those who can participate in the program to those whose families earn up to 300 percent of the poverty level (roughly $67,000 for a family of four).

Backers of vouchers, who tend to be Republicans, argue that they give more educational choices, allowing children the opportunity to receive a better education than they might in public schools. Proponents also say this creates healthy competition that will improve all schools.

Opponents, who are generally Democrats, counter that this is merely the privatization of public education and is siphoning funds away from public education -- making it harder for those schools to improve. About $6,500 in per-pupil state aid follows each voucher student.

Overall, students attending both public schools and private school choice programs in Milwaukee and Racine performed well below state averages, although those in Racine’s public schools were similar to those statewide from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Across Wisconsin, 78 percent of all state public school students were proficient or advanced in math and 81.9 percent achieved at those levels in reading.

Among economically disadvantaged students, or those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, statewide 64.7 percent were proficient or advanced in math and 70.5 percent in reading. In Milwaukee, more than 80 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, and in Racine 60.7 percent qualified. The statewide average is 42.5 percent.

The Madison Metropolitan School District reports that 71.4 percent of all students were proficient or advanced in math, while 74.9 percent achieved those levels in reading. Among economically disadvantaged students in Madison, the district says 52.8 percent were proficient in math and 57.3 percent in reading.

About 425,000 public school students in grades three through eight, plus high school sophomores, take the standardized exams as part of the Wisconsin Student Assessment System. This process, which tests students once per year, has been in place since 1992.

The state hopes to implement a new evaluation system by the spring of 2015 that will test those in third through eighth grade, plus juniors in high school. The new system will test students throughout the year and is supposed to set the achievement bar even higher for the state's students.

State Superintendent Tony Evers said in a news release that math and reading achievement needs to improve across the state for all students. Wisconsin is in the process of applying for a waiver -- as many other states have already done -- from the federal No Child Left Behind guidelines. In order to receive the waiver, Wisconsin must prove it has a system in place to measure the success and failure of students and schools.

"In our request for waivers from No Child Left Behind's broken system for evaluating schools, we advocate for accountability for results for all publicly funded schools," Evers said. "We must ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for the workforce or further education."

What frustrates some is the fact that voucher schools in Wisconsin are receiving public dollars without facing the same scrutiny as the public schools.

“(Sen.) Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and I tried very hard in the Education Committee to make sure the voucher charter schools would be held to the same standards as the public schools,” says Vinehout. “But there was no interest by the majority party to go there. We talk about transparency in public programs and we spend a lot of time talking about fraud and abuse and misuse of taxpayers’ money in a number of other programs. And, of course, we know how every dime is spent and how every public school is performing or not performing -- but we’re not willing to have the same kind of scrutiny for private schools that are taking public money. That’s wrong.”

Earlier this month the Assembly passed a bill that, for now, stopped the further expansion of Wisconsin's school voucher program.

But Pope-Roberts believes attempts to expand voucher programs are far from dead.

“This Republican administration and Legislature is paying back the campaign supporters, because the voucher money has been huge in Wisconsin,” she says. “I just see it as Republicans have to do this to support the special interests who got them elected. All you have to do is look to the ALEC playbook and you can see it coming. As long as the Republicans remain in charge, expansion of voucher programs will continue.”

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