By Ruth Conniff on February 07, 2014

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.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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