Researchers respond to Evers’ criticism of school choice study

James Wigderson
Posted: Mar 30, 2017 8:50 PM
Researchers respond to Evers’ criticism of school choice study

An organization supportive of school choice is firing back at the state superintendent for public instruction for his criticism of a recent study comparing students in voucher and public schools.

WILL PRESIDENT RICK ESENBERG says their school choice study uses the best data available to make a comparison of voucher and MPS students.

Rick Esenberg, president the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), defended the group’s study, “Apples to Apples: The Definitive Look at Test Scores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” from criticism by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

“No study is perfect,” Esenberg said in a statement Wednesday. “But ours is the most sophisticated and carefully controlled evaluation of test scores in K-12 schools since the School Choice Demonstration Project.”

The SCDP is a research project based within the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform studying private school vouchers in Milwaukee and elsewhere. The SCDP found the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the private school voucher program in Milwaukee, had a “positive effect on a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school and enrolling and persisting in a 4-year college.”

Esenberg said that the WILL study, like the SCDP, “contradicts the common narrative among certain politicians and reporters that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program under-perform or perform the same as their peers at Milwaukee Public Schools.”

The WILL study showed students in Milwaukee’s private school voucher program performed significantly better than their public school peers in reading and math when controlling for socioeconomic status. The study also found charter schools that were independent of Milwaukee Public Schools outperforming traditional public schools, too, by as much as 10 percent in both subjects.

WILL used data from the statewide Forward Exam and ACT results and adjusted for students’ socioeconomic status to give the “apples to apples” comparison. The Forward Exam is an annual statewide assessment of student proficiency in English language arts, social studies and math.

During a pre-election debate Tuesday at Marquette University Law School, the superintendent said that there is, “no discernible difference in achievement,” between students in voucher schools and students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

“I know the WILL report showed differently,” Evers said. “They weren’t comparing apples to apples. They were comparing apples to giraffes. And that’s just my own opinion.”

Moderator Alan Borsuk asked Evers how the WILL report did not have an equal comparison of students in voucher and public schools.

“I’m not sure they took into account the special education students and the difference between them,” Evers said. “I don’t know why, but that’s the truth.”

“I think if you ignore the studies, the WILL studies, it’s like burying your head in the sand,” said Lowell Holtz, Evers’ opponent in the April 4 nonpartisan election, in response to a question from Borsuk. “We can learn from each other. We can do better. We can make our public schools as good or better.”

SEE RELATED: Study finds charter and voucher schools do better than public schools

Esenberg said the study did not control for special education because the data does not exist for such a comparison.

“Our study does control for socioeconomic status — something which may be correlated with special needs status, but we cannot control for what we cannot measure,” Esenberg said.

Esenberg said part of the problem is the lack of available data from the Department of Public Instruction, run by Evers.

“We hope that someday it will be possible to do such a comparison and we have made a request to DPI for such data,” Esenberg said. “This request has, thus far, been ignored.”

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.