By Libby Sobic and Will Flanders

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) have a long history of discounting – or perhaps misunderstanding – studies showing the benefits of education reform.  There was that time Evers said Act 10 made “a hell of a big difference” in the teacher shortage. Yet a WILL study has shown that there is no connection between the two. And he’s ignored studies that show the positive impact of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), going as far to say that there is “no discernible difference in achievement” between the private school voucher programs and public schools. This is simply false according to at least ten academic studies.  

And now we have another bold statement coming from someone at DPI. Speaking about whether DPI would want to close failing public schools and reopening them as public charters, DPI employee Jonas Zuckerman said:

“So things like some state plans have said, we’re going to replace the principal, replace the school staff, close the school, reopen it as a charter school. If there was evidence that those worked, we – I – would sign up for those as well. The evidence is just not there that those have worked.”

To quote the Gipper, “There you go again…”

Let’s put the statement in context.  

Last week DPI held a public listening session on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), new federal law that will require Wisconsin to enact certain policies in exchange for millions of federal funds. Despite WILL’s warnings to the state legislature, DPI is making decisions unilaterally on how Wisconsin will comply with ESSA, i.e. submitting a state plan to the federal government in September 2017.

At the public session, Zuckerman was explaining how Wisconsin would be complying with the new ESSA requirement to undertake “rigorous action” on low-performing schools. But DPI’s first draft of the state plan states that Wisconsin would not be undertaking any dramatic reforms for failing schools—of which there are many in both urban and rural parts of the state.  

This is in stark contrast to other states. For example, New Mexico allows for local districts to convert struggling public schools to charter schools. Florida created a program to allow for financial incentives for high-performing charter schools across the country to re-locate to low-performing Florida public school districts.

In comparison, DPI’s draft ESSA state plan emphasizes training of parents and community members, external evaluations by DPI of the school, and professional development for staff and capacity building, such as using the community schools model or extending learning time.   

So, at the public hearing, Zuckerman claimed that reopening failing public schools as charter schools should not be attempted because there is no evidence that such reforms work. But, much like his boss’ claims about Act 10 and vouchers, it simply isn’t true.   

It took us roughly 10 minutes to find studies that disprove Zuckerman’s claim.  Two examples of the positive effects of charter takeovers are found in New Orleans and Houston.  

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, education leaders in New Orleans took the bold step of creating the nation’s first nearly all-charter school system. The Recovery School District took control of area schools away from the Orleans Parish school board, and in turn converted the vast majority of schools in the city to charters. The most rigorous academic research on the topic was conducted by Atila Abdulkadiroglu and colleagues, utilizing sophisticated methods to compare students in takeover schools with those that were not taken over (at the time of the study). They found that students in the takeover schools scored significantly higher in both math and English relative to students in non-takeover schools.

In Houston, an approach not based on charter schools, but one that is arguably equally dramatic, was utilized.  The “Apollo 20” program replaced most school leaders and half of the teaching staff in Houston’s twenty lowest performing schools while applying many of the best practices identified in effective charters. Roland Fryer and colleagues investigated the success of this program and found statistically significant gains in math, though none in reading.  

Similar results have been found in Massachusetts and California. But the bottom line is that it is not credible to make the claim that there is no evidence in support of school turnarounds. Many school districts in Wisconsin are failing kids. While ignoring the evidence in support of the need for dramatic reforms may be more politically comfortable, it is past time to consider substantial reform before yet another generation is lost.

Libby Sobic is associate counsel for education law and policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
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