Closing the Achievement Gap
submitted by Torrey Jaeckle

Wisconsin boasts one of the highest high school graduation rates in the nation. But does that mean we should just sit back and breathe a collective sigh of relief, and pat ourselves on the back? No, it surely does not.

Consider this: The graduation rate for white students in our state is 86%. But the graduation rate for African Americans is only 44%, and for Hispanics only 48%. This incredible achievement gap is hardly anything to be proud of.

Data shows that Wisconsin citizens who drop out of high school are significantly more likely to be unemployed, need government assistance (Medicaid, etc.), and be incarcerated. In addition, high school dropouts earn on average $10,000 less per year than high school graduates. None of this is shocking — it all makes intuitive sense.

While this achievement gap results in negative effects for the dropouts themselves, it also has significant negative financial implications for our state, mostly in the form of lower tax revenues and greater social costs, particularly pertaining to health care and incarceration. One study estimates that high school dropouts cost our state almost $400 million each year.

It is clear that increasing high school graduation rates, and closing the achievement gap, would be beneficial not just for the dropouts themselves, but for all Wisconsin citizens. So how do we do that?

We need to reform our education system by adding the elements of choice and competition to what right now is basically a state run monopoly. And we all know what type of results monopolies typically produce — mediocre. Choice and competition leads to better service, better products, and better outcomes in every other industry. It’s time to utilize the power of the marketplace to improve our public education system.

A lack of choice and competition in education hurts low income and minority families the most, because it is in the less wealthy school districts where we typically find the most problematic schools. To be sure, there are multiple reasons for that. But one thing we do know is that evidence shows that adding choice and competition, particularly in poorer and heavily minority districts, leads to better educational outcomes.

Take Milwaukee for instance, where a recent study just showed that students receiving vouchers in the twenty-year-old Milwaukee school choice program are graduating at a 77% rate, compared to a 65% rate for Milwaukee public school students. If over the past six years public school graduation rates had matched the rate for voucher students, an additional 3,352 students would have graduated, annually adding an additional $21.2 million in personal income for those students, and $3.6 million in extra tax revenue for the state.

And yet the state continues to cap enrollment in this successful program.

Other studies that look at voucher programs across the nation frequently show the strongest statistically significant gains occurring for minority students, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. It is no wonder that some of the strongest supporters of vouchers are minority parents.

Private and charter schools across the nation have frequently shown successful models for educating our most vulnerable children. One need only look at American Indian Charter School in Oakland, CA, or the KIPP Schools, or the Edward Brooke Charter School in inner city Boston (which boasts some of the highest test scores in the city), the D.C. Voucher Program, or any multitude of religious and other private schools that typically spend less per student than the local public schools, but achieve better results. The reason they are able to do this? They are free of so many of the shackles, rules, and restrictions that stifle our public schools and prevent them from innovating.

So here we have a problem — a great achievement gap between white and minority students — and we have proven techniques for closing that gap in charters and vouchers. Yet our state legislators continue to defend the status quo, protecting special interests within the education establishment at the expense of our children — particularly our most vulnerable children.

How long before we stand up and say “Enough is enough!”? Choice and competition in education is good for our state and our economy. But more importantly, it is great for our children.

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