Evidence Supports Charter Autonomy from MPS

Milwaukee’s Non-Instrumentality Charter Schools Outperform MPS on ACT

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

There are two different types of charter schools in the City of Milwaukee, and by at least one measure, those not chartered by the Milwaukee Public Schools are performing better.

Milwaukee’s ACT scores rose in 2011, but they still weren’t able to match the production of the city’s non-union charter schools. In the end, the non-district charter schools left their instrumentality counterparts in the dust when it came to college readiness.

The city’s non-instrumentality charter schools outperformed the MPS average when it came to the ACT, a selective college readiness test, in the past school year. These schools aren’t operated or authorized by local school boards, and have been more successful in preparing students when weighed against the city’s average. In the four qualifying high schools, students averaged a score of 18.8.

In all MPS schools, the student mark was 16.0. For district-operated charter schools, the average was a mere 14.7.

Though these schools still trailed the statewide average, they outscored their MPS neighbors by over 14 percent on the test. However, this gap widens if you compare the city’s non-instrumentality charter schools to the district charter schools. These MPS charter schools have the highest participation rate of any of the groups we study in this article, but also the lowest score. The NI schools rated out over four points better on the college prep exam, outscoring these schools by nearly 25 percent on average.

What’s the difference between the two sets of charter schools? Tenor, Veritas, and Renaissance are all 2R charter schools. Rather than having their charter authorized by a local school board, their authorizer was the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Carmen High School is a traditionally based, non-instrumentality school that does not fall under the 2R umbrella. However, all four of these schools are not held to local school board policies. Their teachers and staff are not members of the teachers’ union and they are unable to participate in the state pension program.

Despite – or perhaps as a result of – the lack of district oversight, these schools were able to outperform their counterparts by a significant margin on the ACT in 2011. The data presented in these outcomes is strictly observational, so while we can’t say for sure why the results turned out the way they did, we cannot ignore the scoring differences between the two groups. The role of selective test taking and small sample sizes may play a role in the overall outcome, but the fact that just a single MPS charter school came within two points of the non-instrumentality average suggests a significant effect in these schools.

Milwaukee’s non-district charter schools saw great strides in their ACT scores in the past year. All three participating schools raised their averages while increasing the overall total of students who took the test. Carmen’s standard score jumped from 14.4 to 18.1 and had 37 more students participate in 2011. Veritas (whose score rose from 17.0 to 19.5) and Tenor (from 18.3 to 18.6) also posted improvements.

The city’s reversal of declining ACT scores is commendable. However, one of the leaders in this trend breaking has come from a small but significant source. These non-district charter schools, the bulk of whom were authorized by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, are showing strong gains when it comes to preparing students for college, especially in comparison to district charter institutions.

This creates a strong case for a greater presence of university sponsored and other non-instrumentality charter schools. Currently, only Milwaukee and Racine have the capability to authorize these schools.  However, potential legislation may install a statewide authorizer to improve the presence of these academies across Wisconsin in the future. These 2011 results are an imperfect metric, but their implications suggest that these charter schools are having greater success when it comes to college preparation – albeit amongst a selective group of students who are planning to attend college.

It’s a positive result for Milwaukee and the state itself. Students in these non-district charters are outperforming their peers despite having their teachers and administrators cut off from local school board and union rulebooks. In a state where ACT results are highly valued, these schools came through with significant improvements. However, whether or not these outcomes will hold up through other metrics and time rolls on still needs to be seen.