Court Victory Ensures DPI Cannot Play Games with School Choice Data
Will Flanders, Research Director
Last week, a Jefferson County Circuit Judge ruled that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) violated the law when it came to releasing data on the state’s private school choice programs. Along with Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin and Matt Kittle of Empower Wisconsin, I served as a plaintiff in this case brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). While issues with data may tend to make people’s eyes glaze over, this case actually represents an important opportunity to highlight the successes of Wisconsin’s school choice programs, and how DPI has routinely tried to hide them.
The Court ruled in WILL’s favor on two counts. First, the Court ruled that the Department cannot hold a private press briefing before releasing all school choice data to the public. State law requires a public release of the data, and instead DPI regularly has held a private briefing in the days leading up to the release. This provides DPI with an opportunity to shape the narrative that will be reported when the data becomes public. Those of us who are regular critics of the public school system are denied access to the calls, meaning that our opportunity to respond to what is released is limited. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, immediate response is critical if one wants their perspective to be a part of the narrative on the data. Mandating a full, public release will give those on all sides of education issues in the state a fair shot to let their voice be heard.
The Court also ruled that DPI’s release of data — which excluded much of the raw choice school data and thus did not allow for a fair comparison between choice and public school students – violated the law. That is, DPI released the raw data for public schools, but the private school data was unavailable save for the small amount appearing in press release form. When one looks at these raw numbers, it generally appears that public school students are doing better than those in the choice program. But there is an important level of nuance that is left out of this discussion — Wisconsin’s choice programs primarily serve students from low-income backgrounds. Unfortunately, this must be taken into account for any ‘apples to apples’ comparisons of choice and public schools to occur, as economic status often has a huge impact on student performance.
WILL has done this work for years through our (appropriately titled) Apples to Apples studies. These annual studies show through statistical analysis that, once the field is leveled to account for economic status, choice schools do better than their public school peers. One needn’t even do such a deep dive to prove this point, but merely compare choice students to their peer group of public school students from low-income backgrounds. The news media, in general, have been slow to add this level of nuance to their reporting, and DPI’s release of data made it impossible for them to do so even if they wanted to.
All Wisconsin’s private school choice programs demand is a level playing field. In many areas — from per-student funding to the release of testing data — DPI has erected roadblocks that appear to have the ultimate goal of serving the interests of teachers unions over the interests of families who simply want the best educational opportunities for their kids. This legal victory represents an important step forward to a fairer deal for school choice.