MILWAUKEE (AP) - School voucher supporters criticized a new report Tuesday showing their schools lagging behind public ones, saying it was unfairly skewed and didn't account for the fact that their schools serve primarily low-income students. They said data comparing their students to low-income students at public schools show a similar level of achievement.
But supporters of public schools disputed those claims, calling such a comparison flawed because public and voucher schools have different family-income limits.
The arguments mark the latest round of a heated debate over the possible expansion of Wisconsin's school voucher program. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed expanding the current voucher program beyond Milwaukee and Racine into nine other districts across the state.
The report, released by the state Department of Public Instruction, was based on scores on a standard state achievement test. It found that students at voucher schools mostly improved their math and reading proficiencies from last year to this year, but they still trailed students at public schools.
State Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, said students who qualify for voucher schools in Milwaukee have to come from families within 300 percent of the federal poverty limit. But low-income students in public schools who qualify for free lunches have family incomes within 130 percent of that limit, and the threshold for reduced-fee lunches is a household income up to 185 percent of the poverty limit.
That means comparing the two groups presents an inaccurate picture, she said.
Jim Bender is a spokesman for School Choice Wisconsin, a Milwaukee-based group that supports voucher programs. He accused Pope of overstating the difference between the two groups.
The 300 percent limit has only been in effect for one school year, he said, so even if the 1,000 or so new students who entered the program that year had higher incomes, they were still only about 5 percent of the voucher-school population, he said.
Walker has proposed expanding the current voucher program beyond Milwaukee and Racine, increasing the reimbursement for each student and allowing special needs students to participate.
Walker's voucher plan would expand the program to any district that has at least 4,000 students and at least two schools receiving a D or F grade on new state report cards. Under those criteria, the program would expand to nine districts next year: Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the reason Walker wants all schools that receive public funds to take part in the annual school report cards is because they can give a more complete picture of student performance over time.
"We need to give parents choices and alternatives to underperforming schools," he said in an email, "and more quality data means parents can make informed choices for their children's education."
But school leaders in all nine districts oppose Walker's plan, and State Superintendent Tony Evers has said there's not enough evidence showing that voucher schools perform better than public schools to warrant such an expansion.
Overall, Tuesday's report said just under half of all Wisconsin students were considered proficient in math and just over one-third proficient in reading.
The numbers appear lower than they've been in recent years because the state imposed a more rigorous definition of proficiency, said John Johnson, a spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction. He said the new scores were based on stricter performance measurements, which help schools do a better job of evaluating how well they're preparing their students.
The report also reinforced an earlier trend: while some voucher schools showed improvement, they still trailed public schools in general.
For example, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program showed 13 percent proficiency in math and 11 percent in reading, each a 1 percent improvement from last year. But across the entire state 48 percent of students tested as proficient in math and 36 percent in reading.
Tuesday's DPI report was based on the test performance of more than 430,000 public school students in third through eighth grades, as well as high school sophomores. They all took the tests as part of the Wisconsin Student Assessment System, which has been used every fall since 1992 to test students in reading and math.
The state plans to start a new test in the spring of the 2014-15 school year for students in third through eighth grades. The current tests measure students' performance at only one point in the year, while the new system will have higher standards and measure progress throughout the school year.
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