Test scores for ‘recovering’ Wisconsin public schools far outpace voucher schools

October 11, 2023 5:00 am
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Listening to a Department of Public Instruction press conference on Wisconsin students’ test scores released this week, it was easy to predict what the smash-the-state proponents of taxpayer financed private schools would have to say.

DPI delivered a glass-half-full analysis of the data, which shows Wisconsin public school students with proficiency rates well below 50% of the statewide standard in both reading and math. Overall, public school students achieved 38.9% proficiency in English and language arts and 37.4% proficiency in math. As a department press release explained, this is an improvement since the beginning of the pandemic; they are the best scores Wisconsin kids have received since the 2018-19 school year. 

The right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty wasted no time releasing an emphatic response by research director Will Flanders headlined “The results are in — Wisconsin schools are failing kids!

But wait a minute. How did the private voucher schools WILL promotes as the answer to our “failing” public schools do on the statewide tests? 

According to the same proficiency data released Tuesday, schools in the Wisconsin Parental Choice program scored almost 17 points worse than public schools in English and language arts, with a total proficiency score of 22.1% compared to public schools’ 38.9%. They did even worse in math – almost 20 points behind public school students, with a voucher score of 17.9% versus public schools’ 37.4%.

So much for the school voucher program as a magic bullet to fix education.

Flanders skips over the inconvenient top-line number that shows voucher schools as a group score significantly lower than public schools as a group and blithely asserts that “once again, schools in the choice program are outperforming their public school peers.” 

He reaches this conclusion by ignoring the big picture completely and focusing only on areas where the data looks better for vouchers.

Facts don’t matter to Wisconsin’s powerful school privatization lobby. Three decades of unimpressive results from the state’s ever-expanding school choice experiment didn’t stop the Legislature from striking a deal with the governor to give a hefty bump in taxpayer dollars for students in private schools this year. And the budgetary burden of financing two whole systems, one public and one private, hasn’t given state leaders enough pause to block enrollment caps from coming off the voucher program altogether in a couple of years.

More than a math problem, we have a giant cultural divide on education. While Republicans continue to fulminate about “wokeness” in the classroom, ban books on race and LGBTQ people and withhold funds from the University of Wisconsin System unless and until it eliminates diversity programs, DPI continues to emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion.

In response to a question about the stubborn achievement gap, still visible in test scores data for Black and white Wisconsin students, DPI’s Abigail Swetz told reporters Tuesday, “We are talking again and always about making sure that our students are feeling affirmed and welcomed in our schools. That includes our Black, indigenous and students of color. That includes our LGBTQ+ students. And it really goes to what we believe so strongly about the whole student, making sure that they are very safe and supported in our schools.”

Other DPI officials also emphasized psychological and social support for kids who are still recovering from the stresses of the pandemic — not, as conservatives who objected to school closures during COVID-19 as well as “wokeness” in the classroom have demanded, a return to the three Rs or a “no excuses” approach to bootstrapping better scores.

Neither the kinder gentler DPI philosophy nor the bootstraps approach has produced a test score miracle for Wisconsin. 

That’s partly because Wisconsin raised the bar for proficiency scores back in 2012 at the exact same time that then-Gov. Scott Walker took an ax to public school funding.

“The percentage of Wisconsin public school students considered proficient or advanced in reading and math dropped suddenly Tuesday — from around 80% to less than 50% — based on higher expectations for student performance adopted by the state Department of Public Instruction and applied to the latest 2011 state achievement test,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported back in 2012.

Not only did Wisconsin aggressively tighten its proficiency standards in 2012, jumping to the second-toughest state standards in the nation behind New York, that same year marked the beginning of historic budget cuts to schools. Since that time, as a state we have invested less in schools year after year in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did a decade ago.

Now, as we emerge from a global pandemic, kids, teachers, and school districts are struggling to meet greater needs with fewer funds.

At the same time, publicly funded private schools are sucking up a bigger and bigger portion of the state’s education funding on the theory that they provide a better alternative — a theory that is not borne out by the data. 

Again, it’s a cultural problem, not a math problem.

Republican legislative leaders expressed their contempt for Wisconsin public schools by not inviting DPI to give testimony on its budget request, as is normal for agencies during the state budget process. 

So DPI and public education advocates went to Joint Finance Committee hearings anyway and held their own events around the state to talk about how fully funding special education and mental health services and the basic costs of public schools would make a big difference for kids.

As DPI’s Swetz put it in the press conference, “We have been asked for a long time to do even more and more and more with not just not enough support.” This year’s uptick in scores, she added, “is an indication of doing the best we can with what little we’re given. And it would be great if we could be given a whole lot more.”


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.