WILL Blog | Flanders: Rural Wisconsin Needs School Choice

 In Education Reform, ER Commentary

This piece originally appeared at RightWisconsin

Rural Wisconsin Needs School Choice

Too often, school choice is Wisconsin is considered to be an issue only for Milwaukee.  The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) district continually fails its students, particularly from poor and minority backgrounds.  School choice has given these children a second chance at life.  But lost in this debate is the fact that school districts outside of Milwaukee are not living up to expectations either.

For example, children in Wisconsin rural school districts are falling behind the rest of the state.  These students are less likely to be proficient in math and reading relative to their peers in suburban districts.  To show this, I analyzed data from the most recent state test, the Forward Exam.

The DPI designates each school in the state as urban, suburban, rural or town.  While most of these definitions are self-explanatory, “towns” are areas outside major cities with populations between 2,500 and 25,000.  In the figures below, I show the difference in proficiency on the math and English portions of the Forward Exam from an econometric model that includes these school designations and many control variables also related to achievement (I leave Milwaukee out of this analysis). The length of the bar represents the extent to which schools in each category underperform suburban schools.

rural schools math

The Figure above shows proficiency rates in math between each district type.  All of these types of school districts perform significantly worse than suburban schools, but the differences are most staggering in rural areas and small towns.  In Math, students in rural schools are 8% less likely to be proficient in math.  In small towns, they are more than 4% less likely to be proficient. A similar story is told when by the numbers for English/Language Arts, presented below.

rural schools english

In English, students in rural areas are about 5% less likely to be proficient, and students in small towns are 4% less likely to achieve proficiency.

Further increases in per pupil spending are unlikely to close this achievement gap. As I have detailed previously in Right Wisconsin, there is little relationship between per student spending in Wisconsin and academic achievement.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.  School choice programs like the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) have been shown to consistently improve performance.  In Milwaukee, studies have found improved academic performance, lowered likelihoods of becoming involved in criminal activity, and increased likelihood of high school graduation.

It is vital that access to school choice be expanded rapidly outside of Milwaukee.  One key to doing this is lifting the income cap on the WPCP.  Currently, students in Milwaukee whose families earn up to 300% of the poverty line are eligible for a voucher.  In a situation that is fundamentally unfair to outstate parents, they are only eligible for a voucher up to 185% of the poverty line.  This easy change would allow many more kids to access high quality schools their families could not otherwise afford.  Additionally, existing enrollment caps on the WPCP stunt the growth of the program. By lifting enrollment caps, far more students could enroll, and the WPCP could flourish.

If the state legislature wants to help rural Wisconsin, it can start with expanding the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program.

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