May 16, 2013
by Christian D'Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst
The Forward Institute recently released a new look at poverty in Wisconsin's public schools, and while this white paper mostly seeks to derail the expansion of school vouchers, it takes a pointed swipe at one of the state's most underrated success stories--independent charter schools. In doing so, Forward advocates for shutting down one of Milwaukee's most successful ventures when it comes to improving the educational performance of students from low-income families.
From Scott Wittkopf's study:
"Charter schools eligible for state aid should be allowed only under the auspices and as an instrumentality of an existing public school district to ensure public accountability in fiscal, academic, staff, and student functions."
This recommends that the state's non-instrumentality charter schools should no longer exist going forward. It is a bold statement, and one that does not line up with the rest of the study's mission - to provide high quality education for low-income students. Milwaukee, which is home to all but one of the state's independent charter schools, has seen great results in these institutions. They commonly outscore public schools and instrumentality charters in both WKCE and School Report Card metrics while educating a high population of low-income students.
These schools, which run outside of the Milwaukee Public Schools hierarchy and are granted charters by either the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or the City of Milwaukee, have shown tremendous growth despite educating students who traditionally struggle on state testing. According to Department of Public Instruction data, these schools had nearly 6.5 percent more low-income students enrolled in their classrooms than the citywide average in 2010-2011. In all, impoverished students made up almost 84 percent of the total enrollment of these independent charter schools that year - though recent data suggests that this number has dipped to 81 percent.
The fact that these schools educate such a high percentage of disadvantaged students is important; an earlier Forward Institute study found an observational relationship between high levels of impoverished students and low State Report Card scores. However, in these independent charter schools, the state's grades are much better than that relationship would suggest. Here are their results on last year's report cards:
The state's independent charters, despite educating a greater percentage of low-income students than the MPS average, posted considerably better report card grades than both traditional MPS schools and MPS's charter institutions. In fact, the difference was significant enough to grade these schools a whole category higher than their peer institutions. On an A-F scale, that's the difference between a "C-" and "D-".
That trend carried over to WKCE scores in both 2011 and 2012. A look at fourth-grade reading in 2011 shows that 72 percent of the students in independent charters rated at either "proficient" or "advanced" on the state test. For the rest of MPS, this figure was just 62.3 percent.
A look at the performance in these schools for 2012-2013 showed that independent charters posted proficiency scores in math that were 55 percent better than the MPS average. These schools held a smaller advantage in overall reading scores as well.
The Forward Institute's recommendation to avoid non-instrumentality charter schools ignores the key data that these schools are outperforming both traditional public schools and instrumentality charter schools in Milwaukee. According to the Department of Public Instruction, they are also educating a greater number of low-income students - students that are typically tied to lower test scores across the state. So why, if these schools provide a better education for students using the WKCE - the metric that Forward uses to discredit voucher schools - and the state's School Report Cards, would anyone seek to avoid these institutions?
Non-instrumentality charter schools are providing better educational options for students from low-income families. However, the Forward Institute suggests that the state stop allowing these schools to exist in a study that they wrote to examine the effects of public education on low-income students. That doesn't seem to make much sense. Is it because these schools operate outside the bureaucratic reach of local school boards and local teachers' unions? Or is it because they show that schools in Milwaukee can glean results with less funding thanks to reform-driven ideas?
These non-instrumentality charter schools are set to take off in Milwaukee, particularly thanks to the budding expansion of Rocketship Academies in the city. Rocketship, which has been successful in the inner-city environments of San Jose, California, will take aim at the city's achievement gap when their first elementary school opens its doors in Brew City next fall. It's just one of many organizations that is looking to provide a dynamic education for an ever-growing, ever-changing group of students. Data from both Rocketship's past endeavors and the operations of independent charters across Milwaukee suggest that these schools will help shape students and turn out better educational outcomes than Milwaukee's traditional public schools. Why, then, would you want to shut that down?