All over the country, states are enacting bipartisan initiatives that require more transparency in public school spending because policymakers, school leaders, and parents lack basic information about how funds are being spent at the school and district level. WILL’s brief analyzes the best practices from these states and shows how the current information available on Wisconsin’s public schools needs to be improved.
Policy Brief: The Case for Public School Spending Transparency in Wisconsin, February 2020
Wisconsin’s part-time open enrollment program allows public high school students to take a class at a nonresidential high school while remaining in their local school. For the first time, WILL analyzed how public school students are using this program at 26 school districts across the state. WILL found that, despite the program’s limitations, students are utilizing the program to address course access gaps in advanced placement, music and arts, and specialized courses.
Milwaukee Public Schools
Last summer, the state legislature passed a law to force Milwaukee to sell their unused and underutilized school buildings. In WILL’s latest report, “Why the State of Wisconsin Forced Coca-Cola to Sell to Pepsi“, we explain how this new law works – and why the state was forced to intervene.
MPS and the City of Milwaukee Ignore State Law and Policy; Open records request shows that nearly all vacant school buildings have had interest from charter, choice schools. MPS refuses to sell buildings to high-performing schools.
Since at least 2010, controversy has surrounded Milwaukee’s numerous vacant and underutilized public school buildings. In September 2013, a WILL Report concluded that nearly all of the vacant MPS buildings received interest to be purchased or leased by a private school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program or a non-MPS affiliated public charter school. Yet, MPS refused to cooperate. And, while MPS cites to the few empty buildings that it has sold or leased to MPS affiliated charter schools, reports and news articles continue to show the staggering number of empty MPS buildings and the appalling lengths that Milwaukee officials will go to in order to prevent choice and charter schools from purchasing the vacant buildings.
Not all public schools in Milwaukee are created equal. There are traditional Milwaukee public schools (MPS), educating 76% of all children in Milwaukee. In addition, Milwaukee has public charter schools that – usually – have less red-tape than traditional schools, although they are still “public” and subject to many of the legal requirements imposed on public schools. Yet, even among charter schools, there is significant variation. Independent public charter schools are authorized by the City of Milwaukee or University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and have complete control over the administration of their school. Instrumentality and non-instrumentality charters are authorized by MPS. While non-instrumentalities have the freedom to hire their own (typically non-union) teachers, MPS hires the teachers for instrumentalities and those teachers are generally unionized.
There is a crisis in Milwaukee. A substantial number of school buildings have sat empty despite considerable interest from private and charter schools. The problem? Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the City of Milwaukee (City) have blocked nearly every attempt to sell these buildings, preferring to keep them empty rather than sell them to an MPS competitor. This is directly related to Milwaukee’s education problem. There are more than 23,000 children enrolled in 41 MPS schools that are, according to the state’s report card, failing to meet expectations.2 Milwaukee needs more high performing schools – regardless of sector. It needs schools that work to be able to expand.
The state legislature took notice. In 2015, State Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Dale Kooyenga inserted a provision in the budget to force the City of Milwaukee – which actually owns these buildings – to sell its unused and underutilized school buildings to private and public charter schools.3 This “Surplus Property Law” was supposed to solve the vacant schools problem once and for all.
However, as this report explains, after two years of implementation, City politicians – those who prefer the interests of government employees over those of families – have consistently failed to comply with the Surplus Property Law and frustrated its purpose. We also explain how the legislature can chart a better path forward to ensure that private and charter schools can expand into vacant school buildings which would help the Milwaukee education landscape and save taxpayers from paying to maintain these buildings.
The Appendices for the report are available here.
Much has been made in recent years about the rate of suspensions and expulsions across the country and the role that student race ostensibly plays in them. A 2016 U.S. Department of Education study showed that African American students were 3.8 times more likely than white students to be suspended. But other scholars claim that racial disparities in suspensions are emblematic of other problems, such as poverty (Eden, 2017; Kersten 2017).
Wisconsin was not immune to the national trend. This paper seeks to build on previous studies by providing the most comprehensive analysis, to date, of how the Obama Administration’s disciplinary policy changes have impacted Wisconsin public schools. We provide the historical context for changes in suspension policy before conducting extensive analyses of data on suspensions in Wisconsin since the 2007-08 school year.
In response to allegations of bias in suspension rates in schools along racial lines, the Obama Administration increased federal involvement in discipline policy across the country. Through a ‘Dear Colleague’ memo, federal incentives and legal threats, the Department of Education and Department of Justice worked in concert to push forward a system of positive behavioral support that was designed to reduced suspension rates, particularly among minority students. While these policies may seem reasonable on their face, little research has examined the impact of these policies on the classroom.
This study represents the first attempt to do so at the state level.
We gathered data on the implementation of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system from more than 2,000 schools throughout Wisconsin from 2009- 2016. We combined this with data on the number of suspensions and academic outcomes of most schools in the state over the same time frame. Along with a host of control variables, this represents the most comprehensive attempt to date to isolate the impact of PBIS on classroom climate.
In 2016, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued an executive order to state agencies, instructing them to use best practices when responding to open record requests from the public. Among other things, the order required agencies to comply with “any small and straightforward [open records] requests within 10 business days of receipt, whenever it is practicable to do so.” The 10 day timeline was based on the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Open Records Compliance guide that recommends a response time of 10 business days for “a simple request for a limited number of easily identifiable records.” This guide applies to all government entities that reply to open records requests, including school districts and municipalities. From a good government standpoint, this makes sense; open and transparent government allows the people to hold their elected officials accountable and better understand how their tax dollars are being spent. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis quipped, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
But Walker’s executive order did not – and could not – extend to K-12 public school districts. Arguably, these government entities are the most important in our state, whose practices impact well ver 90% of our children’s education. Unfortunately as WILL and others have experienced, some of these school districts are the worst offenders of state law, often stonewalling, delaying, or even refusing the turnover of public documents.
The Milwaukee vacant schools issue results from decreasing demand for traditional Milwaukee public schools. In the last ten years, total enrollment at Milwaukee Public School (MPS) has declined by 11.5%. While some MPS schools offer a good education, the system overall has struggled mightily to deliver a safe and quality education. For example, MPS’ overall proficiency for the 2016-17 school year in math was 15.4% and for English Language Arts it was 20.1%. Arrests at traditional MPS schools are roughly 27 times higher than at private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). MPS’ four year graduation rate is 62.2%.
As a result, Milwaukee parents have used school choice to send their children to other schools. In the last ten years, enrollment at private schools in the MPCP has increased by 45% and independent charter schools by 47%. Right now, only 67% of children attend traditional district schools.
The increase in school choice participation along with a long-term population decline (since 1990, Milwaukee’s population has declined by 5% or about 33,000 people) are two significant reasons why MPS has vacant and under-utilized facilities. This has been well-documented, starting in December 2010 with investigatory reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and subsequent reports by WILL.
Charter Schools and Voucher Programs
Although challenged numerous times over the years in state and federal court, the Milwaukee School Choice Program (“Choice Program”) has survived several lawsuits and expanded in scope. The major legal challenges to the Choice Program have centered on the following issues:
* Wisconsin’s restrictions on using public money for private purposes;
* The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause that separates church and state (as well as a comparable provision in the Wisconsin Constitution); and
* Whether schools participating in the Choice Program are to be considered “district” schools under the Wisconsin Constitution.
We often hear that schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) are not held “accountable.” Contrary to this popular belief, however, these schools are subject to significant accountability measures and regulation. Based on the analysis in this essay and previous research, it is not possible to conclude that public schools are held more accountable than schools in the choice program or vice versa.
Last month, based upon the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the Wisconsin school choice program, you requested that the U.S. Government Accountability Organization (GAO) conduct a federal review of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – a program that is funded by state and local dollars. You raise numerous, serious allegations against the MPCP. In response, our policy brief (enclosed) answers your questions by highlighting existing research on the MPCP and school choice.
Too often, the media, politicians, and interest groups make inaccurate comparisons between private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) system. They fall victim to the attraction of lumping all MPCP schools together, as if they are one homogenous unit, and “compare” their average test score with that of MPS’. This also occurs with charter schools. Unfortunately, this is a flawed analysis that does not take into account the differences between MPCP schools that exist to meet a diversity of needs and preferences among Milwaukee families.
Charter schools were designed to be public schools that facilitate educators’ efforts to navigate around bureaucratic inefficiencies and the influence of labor unions in traditional public schools. But while these schools, and school choice in general, have a long and rich history in Milwaukee, there is still much room for expansion and improvement across the Badger State. For years, legislators have prioritized traditional public schools, which tend to be one-sized-fits-all, over independent public charter schools. But, which model is the best for our children?
Is the sky about to fall on Wisconsin public education? The concerns of expansion opponents were prompted by a recent memo prepared by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), which estimated that districts’ $600-800 million in state aid could be used to fund vouchers. No one knows for sure whether that will actually happen. Even if it does, another LFB memo estimated that public school districts will take in a total of $94 billion in state and property taxes over the same period. In other words, if statewide voucher expansion costs $800 million over the same period, that reduction in state aid to public schools (who will, of course, no longer educate departing students) would amount to less than one percent (0.85%) of their total state and local revenue.
For today’s hearing on the Milwaukee school choice program, we are releasing a primer about the DOJ’s investigation into school choice in Wisconsin. It is important to note that the investigation has little to do with children and everything to do with the prerogatives of the educational establishment. There is not one documented instance of what any reasonable person might call discrimination against a child with special needs by a school participating in one of Wisconsin’s private school choice programs. While DOJ ordered the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) – the state education agency – to gather such complaints, it appears that not one complaint has been filed with DPI.
Too often, opponents of school choice – including scholars – often make arguments against choice without supplying any evidence to support their claims. For instance, the Madison Metropolitan School District issued a statement about the biennial budget as it made its way through the Joint Finance Committee:
“… the budget proposal also provides more taxpayer funding to private school vouchers and independent charter schools, which will drain resources from local public schools for years to come. Neither private school vouchers or [sic] independent charters have a consistent record of improving education for children.”
So do private schools drain resources? As it turns out, these claims are false. Unfortunately, such misconceptions are rampant, necessitating, from time to time, a little mythbusting in order to keep the discussion honest. We present 5 myths and misconceptions about school choice in Wisconsin – along with evidence to show why they are wrong.
Despite the heated rhetoric, critics of school choice in Wisconsin may be surprised to learn that voucher programs are actually quite common across the economically developed world. Some countries have far more wide-ranging, robust school choice programs than the Badger State.
As the Wisconsin legislative session comes to a close, it is time for another edition of WILL school choice “myth busting.” During the session, there has been no shortage of education topics in the news – from voucher funding to the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of the Milwaukee school choice program. Unfortunately, more often than not, this has resulted in a distortion and twisting of the truth. As a result, some myth busting is required.
The fiscal impact of the MPCP has long been a source of contention with the City, Milwaukee Public Schools Board, and the state of Wisconsin. But the debate is almost always short-sighted, narrowly focusing on one piece of a much bigger, more complex puzzle. It neglects any discussion of the economic benefit of school choice. For example, students who graduate from St. Marcus are more likely to land a job, stay out of our corrections systems, and become upstanding members of the community. All of this has a sizable economic impact for the child, city, and state.
This study – the first of its kind in Milwaukee – attempts to monetize the economic impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program over a 20 year period. To perform this analysis we use two rigorous, academic studies on the effect of the MPCP. Wolf and DeAngelis (2016) found when compared to similar students at MPS, students in the MPCP at private schools are 6% less likely to be convicted of misdemeanors and 3% less likely to be convicted of felonies. Cowen (2013) found when compared to similar students at MPS, students in the MPCP at private schools are 4% more likely to graduate from high school. We also utilize previously published studies that monetized the economic benefit of students graduating from high school and not committing a crime. As a result, we were able to estimate the economic benefit of higher graduation rates and lower crime rates of students at the MPCP when compared to similar students at MPS.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker releases his 2017-2019 state budget on February 8. This starts a roughly four month debate about how the State should spend taxpayer money on K-12 education. Hopefully Governor Walker and members on the Joint Finance Committee will release bold education reforms such as lifting the caps on the statewide voucher program. Unfortunately as we see every year, the budget will bring out the same old talking points from those opposed to education reform and school choice. We know what they will be: accusations of school choice draining resources at public schools, outrage at Republicans for defunding public education, rants against unaccountable private schools, blasting private schools for discriminating against special needs children, etc.
So, in order to prepare for the upcoming debates, we step into our DeLorean time machine to answer the attacks that the opponents of education reform will make – before they actually make them.
For too long, the debate over student achievement in public, charter, and private schools has been muddied by insufficient data and inappropriate apples-to-oranges comparisons. Comparisons of test scores between schools in the various sectors could not take into account differences in the students served by those sectors. This study, for the first time using the most recent test score results, dispels that confusion and provide parents and policymakers with the clearest possible comparison of student outcomes in each school sector in Milwaukee – as well as across Wisconsin. Our study, while taking into account students’ socio-economic status and demographics, compares academic performance on 2016’s Forward Exam and ACT in all school sectors in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
We find that private schools in the choice programs and public charter schools in Milwaukee and Wisconsin perform significantly better on the ACT and Forward Exams than traditional public schools when a proper apples-to-apples comparison is made. This means, when things like poverty, race, and English language learners are taken into account and properly controlled for, we are finding that student outcomes on test scores are simply better in the private and charter sector as opposed to traditional public schools.
This matters for parents. It is not about building one sector up or tearing another down. But if we are to take seriously the wish of all Wisconsin parents to provide their children with the best opportunity to succeed, we have to make the best use of the available data to provide parents with accurate information about what is working and what isn’t.
1. Poverty is not just a Milwaukee or urban issue. 144,000 children in poverty attend rural/small town public schools in Wisconsin. Nearly 20% of rural/small town districts have at least 50% of students in the free and reduced lunch program.
2. Students in rural/small town public schools, on average, perform worse than those in suburban schools and similar to those in urban schools on Forward Exam. 1 in 4 students who graduate from rural schools require remediation in math classes. 31 of the 38 lowest performing districts (23,168 students) are from are rural/small town districts.
3. If the enrollment caps were removed for WPCP, we estimate that approximately 144,000 more children in rural/small town school districts would be eligible for a school voucher.
4. Supply exists. 21% (171 total) of all private schools have addresses in rural counties. But only 14% of these schools are in the WPCP. This is due to state law that limits the number of students eligible, restricts the number of students schools can accept, and makes it expensive and risky for schools to enter the WPCP.
What is the Every Student Succeeds Act?
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a bipartisan bill – supported by Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator Ron Johnson, Senator Tammy Baldwin, among others – signed into law on December 2015 and is the new massive federal law governing K-12 education. It replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In short, ESSA – like NCLB – tells states what they have to do in order to receive federal dollars, known as “Title funds,” to support schools and students, including funding for low-income students and professional development for teachers.
 In 2016, Wisconsin received more than $200 million in Title I-A funding alone.
After 27 years of school choice in Milwaukee, the debate over private school vouchers has shifted away from their mere existence towards whether – and how – accountability provisions should impact the ability of private schools to participate in the program. The education community is divided over this question. Some argue that test-based accountability should sanction poor-performing schools of all types, others argue that parental school choice, fiscal,
and market forces are the strongest forms of accountability and are the measures that should be utilized.
Yet despite the amount of ink spilled on the topic, there has been little quantifiable research conducted. This study addresses that research gap. It comprehensively reviews the extent and impact of accountability regulations affecting the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and also analyzes the role of parental accountability. This pioneering report describes the scope
of the accountability regime and presents a statistical analysis that estimates its impact. We find, through the use of a rigorous econometric model, that the accountability system culls poor performing and unsafe schools from the program and allows high quality schools to grow. The system anticipates factors associated with poor-performing schools and their eventual failure.
1. Wisconsin has over 116,000 children that have been diagnosed with some sort of disability. School districts with high rates of poverty tend to have high rates of disabled students. The one-sized-fits-all model of the public schools serves some parents well but not all.
2. Wisconsin ranks 19th among all fifty states and the District of Columbia on test scores for special needs children.
3. Demand for choice exists. Since 2012, on average, about 5,780 special needs students apply for the Open Enrollment Program to attend a public school outside of where they live.
4. Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP), passed in 2015, gives special needs children the chance to attend a private school of their
choosing. But, given all the regulations and hoops parents must jump through, it lags far behind other states like Florida and Ohio in number of children who are eligible.
5. CALL TO ACTION: Wisconsin policymakers should reform the SNSP by: 1) eliminating the requirement that a child must apply for open enrollment, 2) eliminating the requirement that a child attend a public school the year prior, and 3) increase funding for the SNSP
When considering the shortcomings of Wisconsin’s K-12 education system, policymakers tend to focus on its failure to meet the needs of poor and minority students. This focus is important—Wisconsin is held back by struggling rural and urban public schools and has the largest African American to white achievement gap in the country. But, gifted and talented students, especially low-income ones, are underserved in many parts of the state and at risk of being left behind the rest of the country and world.
This is the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s annual report comparing the academic performance of Wisconsin’s schools across sectors. In this report, peer-reviewed by a University-based academic, we put schools in the state on a level playing field by controlling for a number of factors that are known to influence academic outcomes to create “apples to apples” comparisons using the 2017 Forward Exam and ACT results for the state. New additions to the report this year include a ranking of all the schools in the state and a model that attempts to account for disability rates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Among the goals of the school choice movement is to create a marketplace for education, where good schools flourish and bad schools close. Milwaukee offers some of the most diverse education options in the country, but no studies to date have examined the extent to which market forces play in each. In this paper, we conduct an extensive econometric examination of charter schools, public schools, and private schools in the MPCP. We find that parents vote with their feet in charter and MPCP schools when it comes to academics—schools with higher academic outcomes grow. We find that closure is only related to academics in the MPCP, and not for public schools or charter schools. We also find that academics and safety are highly correlated, making it difficult to tease out their individual effects.
WILL’s “Roadmap to Student Achievement” is one of the most comprehensive education reform agendas for Wisconsin. WILL staff have spent more than two years conducting extensive interviews with school leaders, education advocates, and national think tanks in order to come up with serious policy recommendations on how to improve student achievement in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s 2019 Apples to Apples report finds, for a third year in a row, Wisconsin’s charter schools and private schools in the choice program are outperforming traditional public schools. These results, and many more, provide a clear, fair, and consistent look at Wisconsin’s schools, school sectors, and how they perform on a level playing field.
The MPCP results in more college graduates than students from similar backgrounds. Building off this research, Will Flanders PhD, explored the implications of expanded enrollment in Wisconsin’s Parental Choice Program – the statewide voucher program that currently has tight caps on enrollment. As a result of expanded enrollment in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, Wisconsin could expect to benefit to the tune of $3.2 billion over two decades – $2.6 billion in consumer spending and nearly half billion in additional tax revenue.
This report identifies 134 Wisconsin ZIP codes with 40,000 school-age children that have no high-performing school options within ten miles. Despite the number of low-performing schools in Wisconsin’s cities, it is the rural regions where students lack ready access to nearby high-performing schools of any kind. Research Director Will Flanders and Policy Associate Jessica Holmberg use WILL’s School Performance Rankings to identify each Wisconsin ZIP code with high-performing school deserts and provide some policy solutions to address the issue.
K-12 Finance in Wisconsin
Has Wisconsin hit a wall where an additional dollar in education spending will not bring improvements in student outcomes?
Proponents of the status quo in education have been using a memo from the Department of Public Instruction to argue that “school aid being held at zero will cause over half of our school districts to lose funding.” This is a bold claim, but it is highly misleading. State aid is not the only source of “funding” for local schools. A recent DPI memo does note, “[m]ore than half of Wisconsin public school districts will receive less general aid in the 2015-16 school year than they did for the 2014- 15 school year.” This is true. But, a freeze or change in the total amount of state shared revenue will not guarantee a corresponding change in general aid for all school districts. Rather, each district’s student membership and, to a lesser extent, property values will determine revenue allocation among districts.
By using DPI financial data for schools, this policy brief explains why the assertions propagated by some education reform critics comprise an incomplete picture and are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Wisconsin’s school funding mechanisms work.
WILL adds to the prevailing wage debate by estimating the potential savings to taxpayers over the last 5 years if all Wisconsin school districts paid market wages, instead of the prevailing wage, for projects approved by voter referendum. Using our methodology, we conclude that districts would have saved at least $163.2 million and $244.8 million over the last five years.
Act 10 amended the law that governs collective bargaining between municipal employers and employees – except for police and firefighters. Employers, such as school districts, are prohibited from bargaining with a union, which represents public employees. The lone exception is for base wages up to inflation. Act 10 also made meaningful changes to health insurance and premiums for pensions. Employees must pay 5.8% of the total contributions to their pension, and at least 12.6% of their health care premiums.
3 5 years later, the law has saved taxpayers billions.
The passage and implementation of Act 10 – Governor Walker’s signature collective bargaining reform law – was one of the most controversial events in the history of Wisconsin. Over 100,000 protesters filled the state capitol, fearful that passage of the law would have a devastating effect on their lives. U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan concisely summed up many of the concerns of Act 10 opponents: “Cutting teachers ability to bargain for fair wages + Reducing teacher pensions + Increased class sizes and demands on teachers + Damaging anti-teacher rhetoric= LESS TEACHERS.”
Nearly 5 years since the effective date of Act 10, June 29, 2011, have these fears been realized?
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) give families access to money that can be used only on education-related expenses. In so doing, they give parents greater autonomy to decide what kind of education their children receive. The source of that cash could be a government grant but also might consist – or even be supplemented by – a tax credit or tax sheltered deposit. Parents could use these funds to pay for a wide variety of items and services: e.g., private school tuition, textbook purchases, tutoring, etc. If account balances (or a portion of them) were allowed to “roll over,” they might be used for educational purposes in future years – even to help pay for post-secondary education, such as college or technical school.
Like every budget cycle, tensions are high in Madison as the push and pull between the governor, legislators, and lobbyists take shape. Before the Joint Finance Committee in the legislature begins voting on key components of the budget this week, it would be useful to highlight some key points about the budgeting process in the state. Here are 5 things every taxpayer should know:
For the better part of the last decade, no piece of legislation has loomed larger in public policy debates in Wisconsin than the collective bargaining reform law
in 2011 (aka Act 10). The controversial budget repair bill, introduced by Governor Scott Walker in the first weeks of his first term, represented a fundamental break with the past and a new era for state and local governments in the Badger State. Public employee unions, long a force, had their wings clipped as collective bargaining rights were restricted. For the first time, public employees were required to contribute to healthcare and pension costs. Due to this and other cost savings tools, municipalities and school districts saved millions of dollars. Reaction from opponents was loud and swift, arguing that it has had a negative impact on teachers, classrooms, and students.
But even though Act 10 empowered school district superintendents at an unprecedented level – school leaders are implementing merit pay plans for teachers more than ever, no longer needing to get union bosses approval – very little research has been done about how Act 10 has impacted student learning.
Truth in Spending: An Analysis of K-12 Spending in Wisconsin, by Research Director Will Flanders, PhD lays out the facts about K-12 spending in Wisconsin, where Wisconsin ranks nationally, and which school districts are getting the most bang for the buck. Most notably, using the most recent year of data available from DPI, Dr. Flanders examined the relationship of K-12 spending on public schools and student outcomes.
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