WILL Op-Ed | Fact Checking U.S. Representative Pocan’s Smear of School Choice

The following op-ed was written by CJ Szafir, WILL Vice President of Policy and Deputy Counsel, Libby Sobic, WILL Associate Counsel, and Dr. Will Flanders, WILL Research Director, and Collin Roth, WILL Research Fellow.


Yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared before the House Appropriations subcommittee to defend President Trump’s budget. Yet the media is focusing on a tense exchange between DeVos and U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Madison) about school choice and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (the video can be found here). The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel went as far as to say that the exchange was “remarkable” and “explain[ed] the entire history and controversy over school vouchers in Wisconsin.”

But Pocan was simply flat out wrong on a number of items, clearly more interested in scoring political points with his Madison constituents than having a substantive conversation about education policy with the Education Secretary.

Unfortunately, the media has not, so far, held him accountable for his factual errors. So we’ll give it a try. Below are some of the most outrageous statements made yesterday by Congressman Pocan about the Milwaukee school choice program:

  1. “I come from Wisconsin, one of those states that unfortunately has had a failed experiment with taxpayer funded voucher schemes.” (0:19) “After 14 years in the legislature, we’ve had these dismal results [of school choice].” (3:55)

At this point, there is overwhelming evidence that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) perform as well or better than their peers in public schools. From an academic standpoint, the most rigorous study done on the MPCP is the School Choice Demonstration Project which followed a sample of students in MPS and MPCP for a period of six years. Students were matched based upon socio-economic status and geographic location. Among other things, this near gold standard study found that students are more likely to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and persist in that college than their peers at public schools.

This should all be familiar to Congressman Pocan. As a state representative, he served in the state capitol from 1999 to 2013, which is the same time the school choice demonstration project was occurring and findings were released.

Pocan cites to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in his claim that “on average students in MPCP performed lower than traditional system.” But our research — which is the most up-to-date, sophisticated school comparison, taking into account socio-economic factors of students — found the exact opposite. Using state data, we found that students in the MPCP significantly outperformed their public school peers on the ACT and state-mandated tests. The 7.7% higher ACT scores could mean the difference in a student getting into college or not in some cases.

A list of all the academic studies showing positive school choice results can be found below.

Rather than a failed experiment, the MPCP serves as great evidence for the value of providing low-income families with alternatives to traditional public schools. These #schoolchoicedeniers, who ignore the most respected academic studies, need to be called out for helping to perpetuate myths that paint an inaccurate picture of how our children are performing in school.

  1. “In 14 years I was in the state legislature, it was during the entire growth period of this program. [Choice schools] turned down kids with disabilities.” (0:50)

There is no evidence that MPCP schools discriminate against students with special needs. None. And if Congressman Pocan does not believe us, he can ask Attorneys General Holder and Lynch. The Obama Justice Department — certainly no friend of education reform — conducted a 4 year probe into the MPCP for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They concluded that there was no evidence of discrimination.

Part of this is because, according to Wisconsin law, participating private schools “may reject an applicant only if it has reached its maximum general capacity or seating capacity.” Wis. Stat. §119.23(3)(a). So schools cannot turn down children based upon disability status.

Furthermore, there is no question that MPCP schools educate children with disabilities. The most thorough research investigating this question was conducted as part of the School Choice Demonstration Project, a long-term rigorous study of the MPCP conducted by academics at the University of Arkansas and University of Wisconsin. These scholars found that approximately 7-14% of students in the MPCP had some form of disability compared to 19% of students in MPS.

While the MPCP rate is somewhat lower than the rate in public schools, there is a reason for that. Private schools do not have the same incentives to classify students as disabled as public schools do. According to the research, students in the MPCP are about 12.4% less likely to be classified as disabled as children in public schools. This is, in part, because private schools do not receive the same additional federal and state funding to educate children with disabilities as public schools do.

  1. “[Choice schools] can turn down students who are gay or lesbian.” (0:54)

Just like with children who have disabilities, Wisconsin law prohibits MPCP schools from turning down students based upon sexual orientation. They can only reject students if the school has reached its maximum capacity.

This is all overseen by the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). As Congressman Pocan is surely aware, the DPI creates the application form for interested families and monitors the application process. They ensure that schools select applicants on a random basis and approve MPCP schools’ plans for accepting applications. PI 35.03(3)(a).

We are unaware of any children being denied entry into a school because of their sexual orientation.

  1. “Two-thirds of the money that went to tax vouchers were making more than $100,000.” (3:05) 

If true, this is a shocking claim because the income limitations of the MPCP is 300% below the federal poverty limit (about $72,000 for a family of 5) and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (statewide) is 185% below the federal poverty limit (about $53,000 for a family of 5). Is Congressman Pocan alleging fraud? The voucher program really isn’t being used by the poor and is just a giveaway to the rich?

While we aren’t exactly sure, Pocan likely has his Wisconsin education policy mixed up. In addition to the taxpayer funded voucher programs (MPCP, WPCP), all of which have strict income limitations, Wisconsin allows parents who send their children to any private school to deduct the cost of tuition from their state income taxes. The Private School Tuition Deduction allows parents to lower their gross income by an amount up to $10,000 for the cost of tuition.

Logically, wealthier parents — more likely to send their kids to expensive private schools — enjoy the preponderance of the benefits from this deduction. And, again not surprising, local media reported that two-thirds of those people using the credit make more than $100,000 a year.

But this program has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s parental choice programs, and the conflation of the two either represents confusion or intentional misleading on the part of Pocan.

  1. “Would you send your kids to a school [Right Step] that has 93% students are not english proficient and 0% math proficient?” (2:03) 

Congressman Pocan’s use of Right Step, a private MPCP school, as indicative of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program overall is quite simply disingenuous. Right Step is a military-style private school made-up of mostly children who have been expelled from Milwaukee Public Schools. The students coming to Right Step often lead structureless, rebellious lives, and therefore are some of the most difficult at-risk students in the city.

Right Step represents the last chance these children have to turn their lives around. Since 2007, over 80% of Right Step students have increased proficiency by 2-3 grade levels and have made significant progress in reading and math. Right Step also attempts to teach these troublesome teens how to become contributing members to society through its military-style curriculum.

Instead of applauding a school that focuses on at-risk children, Congressman Pocan and the media malign and misrepresent the school.

It’s not any surprise that Pocan would use his time with Secretary DeVos to attack Wisconsin’s private school choice program. But cherry picking anecdotes and misrepresenting data only serves to offer an incomplete picture of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Schools, including St. Marcus Lutheran, which has a student body that is overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged and yet boasts more than 90% graduation rates, and Hope Christian Schools, a network that serves more than 2,500 Milwaukee students, which had six straight years of 100% college acceptance for graduating seniors, represent the success of the MPCP.

The Journal Sentinel is right in that the exchange adequately describes the school choice debate. Opponents of choice continue to trumpet talking points that are wrong. When they do so, they turn education policy into politics, thus tarnishing the debate about how best to educate children.

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