“I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means…”
On Sunday, the Kansas City Star ran a column that misinterprets a recent report published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. I read the study a couple of weeks ago and was baffled — not so much by the results, but by the focus of the study and its methodology. Naturally, choice opponents have taken its publication as an opportunity to twist the findings to fit their worldview. I’ll try to explain what the report actually said, and why it is of dubious value. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "I do not think it means what you think it means."
While commenters have repeatedly suggested that this report demonstrates the failure of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, it is vitally important to note that the report was limited to an attempt to guess the levels of parental involvement in the public schools, and the decisionmaking process of parents exercising public school choice — all based solely on the demographic characteristics of parents in the school district. These guesses were based on data for Milwaukee supplied by the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey, and on demographic-based trends for parent and family involvement in education reported by the National Household Education Surveys Program. The NHESP data amounts to demographic assumptions about the effect of parents’ educational attainment, race, and ethnicity, household composition (single-parent v. two-parent), and mothers’ employment status. The author of the WPRI report simply applied these assumptions to the census data for Milwaukee families.
The report concluded that less than half of Milwaukee parents whose children are in public schools consider more than one school when deciding where their children will attend, and only two-thirds of those who do consider two or more schools factor academic performance into their choices. The author further assumed that only about one-third of Milwaukee public school parents are highly involved in their children’s schools, and that less than half are projected to participate at home in their children’s educations. According to the author, because Milwaukee’s demographics suggest that the city’s parents are unlikely to be involved with their children’s educations and unlikely to consider academic credentials when choosing among public schools, the city’s public schools should not be expected to realize significant improvements from the impact of public school choice.
This report’s methodology renders it practically worthless, for several reasons:
- The report makes no effort to describe realities in Milwaukee. The author points to no local study that demonstrates how Milwaukee’s parents might mirror (or diverge from) the results of the national research. Put simply: the author’s report isn’t about Milwaukee, it’s about what you might expect from a nationwide random sample of people whose demographics roughly match those of parents with children in Milwaukee’s public schools. One of the reasons this assumption should be challenged is the fact that the city has had a school choice program in place for nearly twenty years, whereas the vast majority of parents nationwide still have no choice. Given this unique history with school choice, why would the author assume that Milwaukee’s parents’ decisionmaking must still conform to national norms? Because it is completely divorced from the reality of Milwaukee’s situation, this report would have yielded exactly the same results even if Milwaukee had no school choice program.
- The report provides no basis for comparing the current levels of educational attainment in Milwaukee Public Schools with those prior to the adoption of the choice program. The author shows that the city’s public schools currently lag behind the rest of the state, but fails to point out that the achievement gap is narrower today for schools exposed to competition than it was before the introduction of competition.
- Similarly, the report does not compare academic outcomes between schools insulated from competition, and those exposed to competition, which improved. This report has absolutely nothing to say about how competition and choice has affected Milwaukee’s public schools.
- The report suggests that public school choice should be considered a failure if parents place more value on non-academic factors when deciding where their children should attend. Parents prefer schools based on a huge array of considerations, and many families believe themselves to be best served by schools that are conveniently located, safe, or values-based. The power of choice — and the reason that choice programs routinely have long waiting lists — is that parents can make decisions based on what they think is best for their children and family, not what is important to or convenient for bureaucrats.
The fact of the matter is that the best available research — and there is a lot of it — shows that school choice in Milwaukee has been fantastic for kids who are given the chance to attend private schools, but that it has also driven improvements in public schools as well. School choice is no longer an unknown commodity, and two recent books make a compelling argument that choice is remarkably effective at generating improvement in failing public schools. Because I live in the St. Louis Public School District, I can only hope that Missouri will accept the wisdom of school choice by the time I have school-age kids.