OPINION: Columnist Says Wisconsin Choice Schools Do Pay Off

From Patrick McIlheran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The striking bit of news out of that ongoing study comparing private and public schools in Milwaukee is this: Researchers aren’t yet sure how, but the private schools are better at getting kids across the finish line.

This is one bright spot in a report otherwise showing that children using Milwaukee’s school choice program were doing only about as well as Milwaukee Public Schools kids on state tests. The study, by independent university researchers, is following two sets of children, matched for background and poverty, to see which system does a better job of improving their scores on math and reading tests. So far, say researchers, there’s no statistically significant difference.

But the study’s oldest students have reached graduation age. There, say researchers, there is a difference. Children in choice schools were notably more likely to graduate from high school. Just among those who spent ninth grade taking their state aid to a private school in the form of a voucher, 77% graduated in four years; 69% of MPS kids did.

Among students who spent all four years in a choice school, 94% graduated on time; 75% of kids who stayed in MPS all four years did.

We’re talking about Milwaukee children who qualify for choice by being from poor families. In choice schools, they’re graduating at suburban-kid rates, says researcher John Witte, a University of Wisconsin-Madison economist.

After that, about 35% of the teens who spent four years in an MPS high school were accepted into a four-year college. Among those spending four years in a choice high school, 54% got into a four-year college.

On these measures, “we’re seeing a clear advantage for voucher schools,” said researcher Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas. This matters. People who graduate at least from high school are less likely to become criminals, more likely to live healthy lives. Reaching college, they’re far less likely to end up poor. If the results hold up in later years, this is a crucial effect.

What is its cause? Researchers aren’t yet sure. It isn’t that choice schools are snaring better students, said Witte. Researchers tested and found no sign of that. It isn’t that choice schools are lowering the bar, said Wolf, or their kids wouldn’t make it into college at such a rate.

Wolf speculated that some element of private schools’ culture could be at work. In better choice schools, it’s just drilled into kids that they can make it to college. The better choice schools even put different expectations on parents.

Last year, researchers said that many choice parents were using private schools’ religious character as a signal of a better learning environment. That’s a sound strategy: As Witte points out, urban Catholic schools have long been found to boost graduation rates among all kinds of kids. The interesting part now will be finding out why. In coming years, researchers will compare schools’ content to look for reasons.

It’s of more than academic interest. Getting more children across that finish line is crucial to Milwaukee.

Read more here: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/119091619.html