Are Wisconsin Schools Safe?

At the heart of school accountability is quality. The burn is, who decides quality? What’s relieving about school choice is the ability for families to decide that definition for themselves. And as a new study from Wisconsin shows, their reasons are not always limited to academics.

Under Secretary Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education has been the driving force behind states implementing their own school and district report cards to avoid forced accountability measures under No Child Left Behind.

When discussions in Wisconsin turned to impose report cards on private schools in school choice programs, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) wanted private schools to use and prioritize public school metrics. But was that really needed?

After all, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) has shown higher graduation rates and higher college acceptance/retention rates for students using vouchers. Understandably, choice supporters fought to preserve those schools and their uniqueness rather than force them to conform to a model with no real track record of success. It’s true transparency is critical to parents and policymakers, but uniformity in that quest will not improve the outcome. 

For the most part, schools in the parental choice program and charter schools had similar frequency and types of incidents. The real gap existed between them and the public school district.

As the fight for school autonomy continues, so do discussions among policymakers to determine relevant state report card data points. With “improved student safety” in parents’ top four reasons for choosing alternatives to public schools, the level of safety experienced in schools appeared a metric worth considering.

With three years of data from the Milwaukee Police Department, School Choice Wisconsin’s School Safety report is the first of its kind to analyze school safety across sectors, lending context for policy dialogues in Wisconsin and across the country.

The report’s authors found an enormous difference in safety metrics, after adjusting for enrollment differences, between Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), private schools participating in MPCP, and independent charter schools. For the most part, schools in the parental choice program and charter schools had similar frequency and types of incidents. The real gap existed between them and the public school district.

For example, Wisconsin schools in MPS were five times more likely to have a call to police about a violent act than the MPCP. MPS also was 27 times more likely to have a call end in arrest than the private schools of choice.

Wisconsin schools safe

Wisconsin Schools Arrests

The authors also compared like-sized private high schools in which nearly all of the students used a voucher to like-sized public high schools. The voucher-accepting schools made significantly fewer calls to police. Even where the poverty level of the MPCP schools’ students exceeded that of MPS’, the MPCP schools made fewer calls.

That suggests there is more to public school safety issues than traditional district school advocates claim—that poverty and neighborhood dynamics are to blame making safety outcomes outside the schools’ control. Clearly public and private schools unhindered by mounds of regulations and bureaucracy are able to establish a different culture in their schools by trying strategies unique to their student populations.

What are those strategies? The School Safety report does not determine causality, but provides some insights into possible reasons for the stark difference in safety measures and overall environment between sectors.

In describing the day-to-day environment at their schools, surveyed administrators of Wisconsin schools participating in the MPCP most frequently used words such as “safe,” “family,” “structured,” “focused,” and “respectful.”

Seventy percent of Milwaukee private schools require some kind of uniform, and 9 percent of them even require uniforms with ties. To compare, only 13 percent of Milwaukee public schools require uniforms. The U.S. Department of Education studied the effect of school uniforms in its 1996 reportManual on School Uniforms. This report outlined potential benefits including:

  • “Decreasing violence and theft—even life-threatening situations—among students over designer clothing or expensive sneakers.
  • Helping prevent gang members from wearing gang colors and insignia at school.
  • Instilling discipline in students.
  • Helping parents and students resist peer pressure.
  • Helping students concentrate on their school work.
  • Helping school officials recognize intruders who come to the school.”

In 2012, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) commissioned a poll and focus groups involving parents and teachers of students in MPS. Some parents of students in the MPCP were also interviewed and asked their opinions on MPS and MPCP schools with which they were familiar. MPS focus-group parents raised concerns regarding “violence, bullying, and the lack of attention to scholastic activities, particularly for middle and high school students.” Those parents also said they experienced “poor and/or nonexistent communications between school and family, safety consideration, low expectations, and curriculum.”

One example that really highlights the importance of school culture is a school called Right Step Inc. As a school that is populated entirely with students who have been suspended and/or expelled from MPS, Right Step requires discipline. In the MPCP, Right Step has a military emphasis and strict rules. Over the three-year period of the Safety Report, the school composed of troubled students had zero calls, citations, or arrests.

School leaders in Milwaukee already know that parents place a high value on safety for their children’s learning environment. How much of an emphasis the general public or policymakers will place on it is still up for debate. With hope, the Safety Report will lend additional insight into how parents are choosing schools for their children. 

Ultimately, the discussion surrounding school quality tends to lead with standardized test scores and graduation rates. But wouldn’t success in those areas and the satisfaction of parents be hard to see if we’re blinded by the flashing lights routinely surrounding their schools?