Charters Polish Their Image by Cherry-Picking Students

Wisconsin's Forward Institute released a new study of the Milwaukee schools yesterday that shows charter schools' better performance on Wisconsin's new "school report cards" compared with regular public schools is due almost entirely to the fact that the charter schools are able to exclude habitual truants.

While truancy rates had the most significant effect on school report card outcomes, according to the study, excluding poor and disabled students also enhanced charter school scores. So did the percentage of teachers with five or more years of experience. Schools with more experienced teachers performed better.

The study, Habitual Truancy and School Report Cards in Milwaukee Schools (PDF), "tells us something critically important about what is happening in the Milwaukee education system," Scott Wittkopf, the study's lead author and director of the Forward Institute, explained during a press conference in Spring Green on Thursday.

The Forward Institute chose Spring Green as the site to announce the study's results because a plan to expand Milwaukee's "school choice" program statewide will drastically change school systems in small, rural districts. That's why the results of this study are particularly relevant to residents of Wisconsin's small towns, Wittkopf said.

"Milwaukee now serves as the laboratory for education experimentation in Wisconsin and the nation," Wittkopf said.

"The data presented in this study along with other cited research indicates a strong likelihood of student selectivity ('skimming') by 2R charter schools," the Forward Institute explained in an advisory. "This factor creates perceived positive effects which are overstated and unrelated to school type."

Wittkopf went even further in his explanation of the significance of the study's results.

Describing a "vicious, downward spiral," he noted that even as charter schools skim high-performing students and drain resources from public schools, state policymakers want to use school report cards as "a wrecking ball -- to literally wreck public schools in our most distressed communities, and replace them with schools that do not provide equal opportunity for every child."

The study also recommends several public policy solutions, including: implementing a model program to reduce truancy statewide; launching a 10-year plan to sunset all publicly privatized schools; developing criteria for proper use of School Report Cards to help schools improve; addressing the issues of inequitable public-school funding; and addressing the larger problem of poverty and its impact on child development and learning.

Milwaukee had a total of 49 charter schools as of 2013, which includes 29 district charter schools and 20 private charter schools which operate under a new Wisconsin law that allows entities other than the Milwaukee Public School system to authorize and issue charters.

Charter schools now account for nearly 20 percent of student enrollment in the city of Milwaukee and a significant taxpayer investment, the Forward Institute added.

"In 2012, private charter schools received state aid payments of $7,775 per pupil, totaling $59.8 million," the study explains. "By contrast, MPS received $6,442 per pupil, 17% less than charter students. Had the aid to [private] charter schools been diverted to MPS, the state aid amount per pupil would have increased to $7,198."

The nation's first private school voucher program began in Milwaukee more than 20 years ago. The state Department of Public Instruction has found that students in Milwaukee's voucher schools performed no better on statewide math and reading tests than their public-school peers.

The Forward Institute's study on private charter schools shows similar results.

"A 20-year experiment has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and shown no real educational benefit or effectiveness beyond what is available in the public schools," the report notes.

The Forward Institute's motto, "Evidence before ideology," runs counter to Wisconsin's ever-expanding school-choice plan.

Photo: "Strict teacher in glasses pointing at someone," via Shutterstock.