Milwaukee’s Charter Schools Enroll Large Number of City’s Poorest Children

By Christian D’Andrea

MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

One myth that seems to surround charter schools in Milwaukee is that they are able to pick the cream of the crop when it comes to their student body. Most recently, we saw this rear its head in a discussion of the most recent NAEP data, which detailed the disparity between high-income and low-income students when it comes to test scores. Some people believe that these charter schools educate an overwhelming number of students that come from more financially-stable backgrounds.

However, that’s not the case.

Just examine the Department of Public Instruction data from within the district and its non-instrumentality charter schools. There are 19 2R charter schools in this group — schools that are sponsored by either the city, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, or the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.  They are not authorized by a school board, like charter schools in the rest of the state are.

These schools are similar types of schools as the ones that would potentially be created by a statewide charter authorizer. They have more autonomy than regular public schools, but also lack some of the benefits, including teacher pension programs.

Sixteen of these schools have enrollment data available on the Wisconsin Information Network for Successful Schools (WINSS). This database can be found here. One school had an official enrollment count so low that data could not be revealed due to privacy concerns. The other two – Milwaukee Scholars and Milwaukee Math and Science Academy – are entering their first year of existence and have no data available.

WINSS is able to tell us the population and income status of the children that attend these schools. The 16 recorded schools educate approximately 7,030 students in the city of Milwaukee. Of these, over 5,897 were considered to be “economically disadvantaged.” WINSS defines this as students that are eligible for federal free or reduced lunch benefits. Nearly 84 percent of non-instrumentality charter school students fit this description.

All data is from 2010-2011.

The concentration of students that hail from low-income backgrounds is over six percent higher in the city’s independent 2R charter schools than the Milwaukee average. This shows that not only are these schools educating some of the toughest students, but they are actually doing it on a greater scale than traditional neighborhood public schools.

The myth that Milwaukee’s charter schools aren’t educating the city’s poorest students holds no weight. The student populations within these independent charter schools help confirm that. In fact, DPI has deemed that some of these schools teach this group on a nearly exclusive basis. However, the achievement group between pupils from high-income backgrounds and low-income backgrounds not only persists, but is growing to become a major problem in Wisconsin’s largest city. For Milwaukee to improve, these public schools will have to find a way to reach the children that have historically been tougher to teach.