Being a Democrat in Wisconsin: Winning from the center

Wisconsin Democrats must begin to take more seriously the differences between their base and the political center of Wisconsin.  This is made more difficult by the fact that Democrats are concentrated in a few areas of Wisconsin, giving them very wide margins of victory in those districts but hurting their prospects for winning over many districts.  However, Republican support is rather shallow in many districts, making it feasible for Democrats to win majorities in state government, especially during presidential election years.

Wisconsin is not a progressive state.  As I have argued in a previous post, it would be wrong to mistake the dominance of Wisconsin Democrats in statewide races for national office as strength for the progressive agenda in the state.  The political center of the state is not to be found in Madison or Milwaukee, which many consider to be the base of the Democratic party in Wisconsin.  Of course, these are reliable areas of Democratic support, and Madison is in many ways a model small progressive city.   There are also hopes that Milwaukee could one day be a city possessing similar merits as Minneapolis: a center of political influence that would radiate to all of south-eastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is very different from Minnesota.  Perhaps the most important for its political life, the population of Wisconsin is far more distributed than that of Minnesota.  Whereas almost 2/3 of Minnesota’s population lives in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, only 1/3 of Wisconsin’s population lives in the metropolitan areas of Madison and Milwaukee.  Much like Illinois, the economic and political life of Minnesota is dominated by its first city; this is clearly not the case in Wisconsin.  It does not help things that Milwaukee is a struggling city that is frequently seen by those living in its suburbs as a drain on the metropolitan area rather than a source of strength.  The antagonism between Milwaukee, which is the only city in Wisconsin with a large African American population, and its suburbs also fuels the racism that is often pronounced in those suburbs; it is not a coincidence that those same suburbs experienced large population booms in the late ’60s during the so called “white flight” from Milwaukee.

The center of GOP dominance extends from the Milwaukee suburbs, especially Waukesha county, down the Fox River toward Green Bay.  This is the old industrial center of state, and is the western flank of the “Rust Belt” that extends through the great lakes region.  This area has traditionally been dominated by heavy industry, especially paper, and remains far more industrial than the western part of the state.  The electoral strength for the GOP in this area is its greatest in Waukesha county and other Milwaukee suburbs and trails off up the Fox river.  Although there is no hope for Democrats to win significant votes in Waukesha, strong Democratic candidates can win in Green Bay and North-East Wisconsin.  An analysis of vote shares in those assembly districts shows that these are the “tipping point” districts where the vote share of Democrats and Republicans approach 50/50.  The battle for the state legislature cannot be won in Madison or the western part of the state, but rather must be won in the Fox Valley.

Wisconsin Democrats are at a crucial disadvantage in this battle, but this is not merely due to gerrymandering after the 2010 census.  A common refrain from Wisconsin Democrats alleges that the Republican majority is in place predominantly because of the way in which districts were redrawn after the overwhelming (and unusual) victories by Republicans in 2010.  One of the primary pieces of evidence for this is the fact that state-wide Democratic candidates for the Wisconsin Assembly typically receive a majority of the votes for office in elections since 2010, but only 1/3 of the seats.  Many take this to be a result of gerrymandering.  However, there is a deeper explanation that gets to the core of how Democrats and Republicans are distributed differently throughout the state.  As the Democratic party has transitioned from a coalition of southerners and working class northerners to the party of collectivists and social liberals, cities have also undergone a period of renewal.  And the sorts of people who have been loyal Democratic voters since Kennedy have taken up urban residences in greater numbers.  Democrats are in fact packing themselves into urban districts.  Given the district-based system of representation that characterizes American government, this has also had substantial effects on the ability of Democrats to win district-based elections.

This can most easily be seen by looking at voting results by assembly district.  In 2014, when Scott Walker won reelection as governor, voters in the most Democratic district (# 16 in Milwaukee) voted for Mary Burke by almost a 10 to 1 margin whereas those in the most Republican district (#99 in Waukesha) voted for Scott Walker by only a 3.5 to 1 margin.  Similar statistics can be found for other election years.  Additionally, this is not limited to a handful of districts.  Democrats have at least a 2 to 1 margin of victory in 15 of the 99 assembly districts, whereas Republicans only have this in 9 districts.  However (using the 2014 data), Republicans have comfortable margins of between 2 to 1 and 1.5 to 1 in another 31 districts, whereas Democrats only have such margins in 5 districts.  This is the strength of the Republican majority in the state legislature; it is relatively shallow but very wide.  Republicans have achieved this while maintaining a relatively rational district map (squarish districts that generally respect local boundaries), absent of the incredible examples of gerrymandering found in states like North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, and other states (you haven’t seen gerrymandering until you’ve seen Maryland’s 3rd district!).

What can be done?  Democrats are at a serious disadvantage in assembly races, though less so for state senate seats.  And this is no excuse for their poor performance in state-wide elections.  Certainly structural problems cannot be blamed for the repeated victories of Scott Walker; this is likely due to the fielding of weak candidates by the Democrats and the lower voter turnout in off-year elections.  But can the Democrats ever hope to control the entire state government as they did between 2008 and 2010?  Maybe.  In 2012 (with the new assembly lines drawn), President Obama won a majority of votes in 42 assembly districts.  Democrats won in 39 assembly races that year.  However, in another 11 districts the margin of victory of Mitt Romney over Obama was less than 1.1 to 1.  If the Democrats were able to win assembly races in all of those districts plus those that Obama won they would have a 53 to 46 majority in the state assembly, something that seems impossible for many Democrats to conceive of at the moment (where they only have 36 seats).  And most of these districts span from Fond du Lac to Green Bay.  Of course, this would not be easy.  But if Democrats can win governor (statewide) races in off-year elections and assembly majorities in presidential years, then the face of Wisconsin politics would be radically changed.

Political scientists have extensively studied the importance of gerrymandering to election outcomes, though the effect of the geographic distributions of political party members on election outcomes has received less attention.  For a recent study of this see:

Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden. (2013). “Unintentional gerrymandering: Political geography and electoral bias in legislatures.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 8. pp. 239-269.  (Available at


Collective Bargaining Rights and the Importance of a Strong Civil Service.

Democrats should be less concerned about the exploitation of white-collar labor and more concerned about a strong non-partisan civil service.

The “company town” provides the quintessential image of exploitation of blue-collar labor during the 20th century.  Such a town was established (or sprang up spontaneously)  around a large company in order to to house the company’s workers.  Workers purchased and rented homes close to the factory, and because the large company dominated the local employment market workers committed themselves to staying with the company by taking actions (like buying a house) that tied them to the community.  Those workers also took out loans from banks closely associated with the company in order to buy their homes, cars, and other goods.  In this way they were indebted to their employer.  That debt made them even less mobile.  All of these factors gave the workers in the town a substantially weaker bargaining position; their decision to stay in their community became tied with the decision to work for the company, and this made them unwilling to take risks when bargaining.

The modern analog of factory-town exploitation is what one might call “specialization exploitation.”  I’m not sure I’m convinced by the existence of this modern form of exploitation, but many Democrats are.  This modern exploitation supposedly functions as follows.  Workers, even white-collar ones, are convinced to spend significant time and resources on education and work experience that will allow them to provide particular services to the holders of capital (mainly corporations).  Many of those workers incur debt obtaining that education and experience, and subsequently will be less likely to take risks or hold out for higher pay in negotiations with the capitalists.  Because moving requires substantial resources, those with debt are also less likely to seek out higher paying jobs in other parts of the country.  In such a non-competitive labor market, capitalists are able to exploit the desperation and immobility of white-collar laborers in order to reap greater profits.  And because laborers possess the financial burden of improving their own human capital (primarily through education), and they borrow from the capitalists to obtain it, the white-collar laborer must live in debt service to the capitalists who are also her employers.  This gives a morally relevant explanation to slow wage growth; it is the result of capitalist exploitation of labor.

The analogy is even stronger for those with skills specialized for public service.  Unlike for a lawyer or salesperson, the school teacher or social worker who is fired faces uncertain employment prospects unless she is willing to move.  In those, and many other domains of service, the government dominates.  Therefore, it seems that public servants are often put in a similar bargaining position as workers in “company towns” of yore; either take what the company gives you or leave town (at often great cost).

This story comes from the intellectual descendants of early 20th century Socialists.  Those who have a great affinity for Thomas Pikitty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-first Century should probably count themselves among this group.  In their view, all wage earners are in similar disadvantaged bargaining position with respect to managers and owners of capital.  Social workers, teachers, and clerks are in a similar position as welders and construction workers.  And the basic situation of all wage earners has changed little over the past century; even though their objective economic condition has improved immensely, relative to the capitalists they are still disadvantaged.  This is one important reason why liberals are very concerned with the collective bargaining rights of public workers and other white-collar workers.  It is thought that only through collective bargaining can workers of any type be on equal footing with their employers.  It is a way to make sure that workers get fair compensation and treatment.

I think that something like the above story is correct, though I find the depiction of early 20th century company towns to be more convincing than the modern variant.  However, I don’t think it actually matters much for Wisconsin politics whether the modern socialist view of labor economics is correct or not.  What matters is the fact that most Wisconsinites generally do not buy the fact that white-collar workers need the protections of collective bargaining.  And so any objections to the curtailment of collective bargaining rights of public employees justified by appeal to the disadvantaged bargaining position of white-collar public servants is bound to fail.  And as we know from recent experience in Wisconsin, this argument largely does fail.

Democrats have also attempted to develop another family of arguments that associates collective bargaining with improved service to the public.  In fact, the Wisconsin State Journal recently featured an op-ed by Jennifer Ruef supporting collective bargaining rights for teachers.  Ruef claims that improved working conditions for teachers won through collective bargaining have also benefited the learning conditions of students.  For instance, union agreements in the past capped class sizes and limited the number of sections teachers must teach in a day.  These are probably good policies to benefit student learning, but of course student benefit is only incidental to any benefit to teachers.  Teachers unions are representatives of teachers and not students, and as a result they have incentives only to benefit teachers.  Although the interests of teachers and students will sometimes align, they often will not.  For instance, administrative flexibility in firing and pay decisions likely benefit students by keeping the best teachers and getting rid of the worst ones.  Administrators, rather than teacher’s unions have incentives to improve student performance, and there is no reason to think that schools are resistant to adopt policies most beneficial to students, as long as the funds are available.  More importantly, the sort of argument Ruef provides (and the claim that teachers unions are out to benefit students) looks fishy to many in the public, and in politics this perception is just as important as reality.

Luckily winning over Wisconsinites to liberal economic views or favorable views of teachers unions are largely unnecessary to justifying the core protections that unions afford public workers.  These protections are especially important in public service not because of the disadvantaged bargaining position of public workers but rather was a bulwark against cronyism in the civil service.  A public sector labor union create a locus of power not controlled by appointed political officials.  This prevents political officials from using the civil service to dole out positions as rewards for political support.  Protections from being fired also allow civil servants to file reports and take actions against the wishes of political officials, without fear of political reprisals.

Cronyism is precisely what many Democrats fear in a civil service dominated by political appointees rather than career civil servants, and it is very difficult for public servants to do their jobs if they have to constantly worry about whether their actions will offend whoever happens to occupy the Governor’s Mansion.  Of course, in a state dominated by Republicans, increased cronyism would likely benefit them.  And this is precisely what can be seen in Governor Walker’s WEDC, which is tasked with spurring economic growth in Wisconsin.  Many jobs in the agencies went to campaign supporters of Walker, and much of the money it lent went to companies that supported him.  In a Wisconsin with a weaker civil service, more corruption is likely inevitable.  For instance, consider whether scientists in the DNR could give an unbiased analysis of the environmental effects of a new mine, if she could be fired and replaced for any reason.  A scientist should certainly think twice about being critical of the mine if the politicians who could fire her received campaign contributions from the mine owners.

A strong civil service is one of the most important tools to prevent corruption in government, and a public employee union contributes significantly to a  strong civil service.  Of course, civil service protections can be written into state law without those employees being unionized.  But when a single party controls the entire state government, which happens often in Wisconsin, the law is little restraint to corruption.  This argument for public service unions works better for some parts of government than others.  It is less clear why public grade school teachers would need to be protected from corruption than it is for state regulators.  However, it is reasonable to think that teachers would need some protections from administrative favoritism, incompetence, and arbitrariness.  At least I think that an argument can be made for the view that unions are important institutional players that require the administration to justify its decisions; and that certainly is better for both teachers and students.  However, I think the argument must be made in different terms than Democrats have done up until now; otherwise they will keep on losing the argument in the eyes of the public.

Reading of Interest

Anyone who wants to learn about corruption that is rampant when there are few protections to those working in the civil service should read about the American bureaucracy during the 19th century.  Protections against arbitrary firings and merit-based hiring procedures that were instituted during the early part of the 20th century significantly decreased corruption in the Federal and state governments.  The following book is a rather famous depiction of the development of this modern American civil service and the corrupt systems that preceded it.

Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920. Cambridge University Press. 1982.




Being a Democrat in Wisconsin: Even Walker loves La Follette

This is the first installment in a series of short essays I will be writing about Wisconsin politics.  State politics, I think, are under-appreciated by politicians, political operatives, and academics.  The huge federal programs of the 20th century and the states’ multiplying interconnections certainly increased the importance of national politics during the last century, but state politics still matter quite a lot.  And the inability of Democrats to win state offices has certainly had a huge effect on Wisconsin policy and the lives of Wisconsinites.  Anyone trying to travel from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago or trying to receive medicaid benefits can certain attest to this.  My primary interest is to explore how Democrats in Wisconsin should proceed given the political failures of the past five years; sometimes this will also be pertinent to national politics, though what makes sense for liberals in New York or California may not make sense for those in Wisconsin.  

There is a story good Wisconsin Democrats often tell themselves about their state.  In the beginning there was Governor (and then Senator) Fighting Bob La Follette who led a battle against wealthy business interests to win a better life for hard working Wisconsinites.  Progressive politics spread across the country and morphed into the New Deal politics of the 1930s, which brought money for massive public projects, improved regulation, and transformed the social safety net into what it is today.  Aldo Leopold, a wildlife management professor at UW, made similarly important contributions to environmentalism during this time.  In The Sand County Almanac he argues that the environment must be treated with care just as if it were a fellow member of society, creating a new way of interacting with the environment that recognizes its value beyond its uses for humans; this is what he called the “land ethic.”  That is pretty radical stuff.  And it seems that modern leftist politics has deep roots in Wisconsin history, and by extension it must have similar importance for Wisconsin politics and society today.  From this perspective, the recent actions by Wisconsin Republicans has been and extremely shocking change for the state.

But this ignores the political history of Wisconsin, a state that has for most of its history been under the control of the GOP.  Even La Follette was a Republican.  And although it is true that the transformation of the party system over the last century has made such designations less meaningful, certain elements of this GOP dominance have always been and continue to be important for Wisconsin.  To begin with, it is important to understand that the GOP has typically aligned itself with rural (and eventually suburban) interests.  The story of the party’s origin begins at a small meeting house in some small (Mid)-Western town (in Wisconsin or Michigan, depending upon whether you ask someone from Wisconsin or Michigan).  Its period of dominance in Wisconsin has a similar rural character, which was likely most obvious during the reign of the Republican political machine during the 1800s that did the bidding of wealthy loggers. This is  a striking difference from the urban origins of the (modern) Democratic party, which controlled similar political machines in northern cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Whereas FDR’s “new deal” politics were a reaction to the corrupt and ineffective governments of the Democratic Political Machine in New York City  (“Tammany Hall”), the progressivism of La Follette was a reaction to the rural business interests in the Republican party and in support of a more direct and robust form of democracy within Wisconsin.

This is important because the politics of La Follette represents an earlier stage of progressivism than those of FDR and LBJ.  Whereas the “new deal” of FDR put in place a top-down structure for federal control in the states, with the hope of decreasing corruption and improving the implementation of social and infrastructure programs, La Follette advocated greater municipal control and citizen involvement.  It was FDR who oversaw the development of the federal bureaucracy into its current dominant form and LBJ who later expanded it (with “The Great Society” initiatives).  Today most Democrats following in that tradition, seeing a large federal government as a indispensable tool for improving the lives of citizens who are often the victims of less competent and efficient state governments.    In this way La Follette’s politics bears more resemblance to the classical liberals of the 19th century than the (statist) leftists of the 20th century.  He was more similar to Theodore Roosevelt in this respect, who was another early progressive.  Although FDR is clearly one of the founders of the modern Democratic party, it would be odd for Democrats to claim the elder Roosevelt to the exclusion of Republicans.  Democrats should examine their own political beliefs, but most who support Obama’s (and Congress’) recent expansions of the welfare state (and the Federal Government’s role in it) have much in common with FDR and LBJ but far less in common with La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, and other early progressives.

For instance, it is entirely possible that La Follette might have supported something like Act 10, which was the bill that created an uproar in Wisconsin in 2011 for taking collective bargaining rights away from public employees.  Although he certainly stood by workers in their attempts to form unions, he might have been far less comfortable with unions formed by government officials, which are meant to give them greater leverage against the elected representatives of the people in compensation negotiations.  La Follette was committed to keeping private interests of state officials from corrupting their service to the public; from that perspective public employee unions might be worrisome.  There are good reasons to think that public employees should have the right to form unions, but those are ideas of modern leftist politics rather than earlier progressivism.  Additionally, urban liberals should take care to remember that Wisconsin has been, and still is, a primarily non-urban state.  Milwaukee and Madison do not have the populations necessary to dominate the rural and suburban parts of the state in the same way Chicago and the Twin Cities dominate Illinois and Minnesota respectively.  Wisconsin is still a rural state, and that is important in explaining its GOP dominated politics.

The tradition of La Follette and the progressives doesn’t exclusively belong to modern Wisconsin Democrats; Republicans have a right to it as well.  Many Republicans see themselves as reformers, taking on corrupt parts of government in the hopes of creating more responsive, efficient, and fair governance.  How should Wisconsin Democrats see their role in politics today?  With brief interruptions in the 1970s, Wisconsin politics has been dominated by the GOP nearly from the founding of the state.  The more recent successes of Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker (and GOP dominance in the legislature) are consistent with this.   But it is important to note that Democrats have had incredible success in winning federal offices during the latter half of the 20th century.  Additionally, Wisconsin’s electoral votes have gone to Democrats in every presidential election since Reagan’s first.  This offers a great deal of hope for Democrats, because the electorate for national elections is younger than that for state elections.

Although Wisconsin Democrats should take seriously their losses in recent years, they should not see them as a sign that the state is slipping away from them.  Rather, Republican dominance is a return to the status quo.  However, the state is ripe for the taking if Democrats are able to convince the more liberal majority  to become involved in state and local politics in addition to national elections.  I will discuss this in my next post.

Reading of Interest

There are (unfortunately) rather few political histories of Wisconsin, though I give two suggestions below.  The first is Leon Epstein’s 1958 “Politics in Wisconsin.”  By now this is very old, but it is a classic that covers the most important parts of Wisconsin’s political history.  The second is a 2006 book by James Constant that discusses both historical and structural aspects of Wisconsin politics and government relevant to understanding public policy in the state.  

Leon D. Epstein, Politics in Wisconsin, Univ. of WI Press, 1958.

James K. Constant, Wisconsin Politics and Government: America’s Laboratory of Democracy, Univ. of NE Press, 2006.



Public Schools in Wisconsin from a Quantitative Perspective

As part of his new budget proposal, Wisconsin Governor Walker has proposed the expansion of the school voucher program (Currently confined to Milwaukee and Racine) to a large number of districts, including Green Bay and Madison.  Such a voucher program allows students to spend a vouchers at charter or public voucher schools.  I generally don’t have strong feelings about school vouchers.  They clearly have a role to play in some hopelessly failing school districts, but in most districts that allow for vouchers many of the charter schools still are failing.  See  the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, for a good example of the lottery process that decides enrollment to the best charter schools in many such school districts.  In any case, I will not address the issue of school vouchers in detail here; rather, I will subject some claims about Wisconsin public schools to quantitative scrutiny.  Luckily The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) has  released excellent school level demographic and achievement data that should give us some clue about what to think on this issue.  In this post I will systematically consider this data, first describing it and then testing a number of hypotheses that are important for the debate over school vouchers in Wisconsin.

 How are Wisconsin schools doing?

Let us first examine how Wisconsin schools did on the “Accountability Rating,” which is a composite measure of several factors that the WDPI deemed important for successful schools.  Note that this is predominantly a measure of school success, such as meeting certain goals, and not one of student success.  This means that two schools with the same accountability ratings may have students who are performing very differently (and vice versa).  WDPI also provides performance only data, but I will not address that in this post.  For now let us just assume that the “Accountability Rating” is a good measure of school success.

Freq Ratings

To the left is a frequency distribution of schools according to their accountability rating.  The scores range from 0 to 100, though contrary to what some in the media have done, we should not immediately apply standard letter grades to them in the “standard” fashion.  Remember, that these are composite scores, and thus have no natural relation to what we normally take to be letter grades.  This graph affirm this.  The distribution of scores is normal (it matches pretty closely the normal distribution function overlaid on the data), though its average is only about 70.  Typically letter grades are either applied by using some fixed set of standards or through the use of a curving procedure.  The curving procedure typically forces the set of scores to conform to a normal distribution, with the mean of the sample set to a B- or C+ (though sometimes as low as a C), and assigns each grade to some percentage of scores.  Using this method,  we would (roughly) assign As to the 80 – 100 interval, Bs to  72 – 79, Cs to 65-71, Ds to 59-64, and Fs to all under 59 (assuming 8% As, 30% Bs, 40% Cs, 14% Ds, and 8% Fs).


However, this would be the incorrect way to grade these scores, because WDPI has already fixed standards for grading the scores.  They provide us with five grades for the achievement scores, which correspond roughly to the standard letter grades.  Under this grading, 83-100 “significantly exceeds expectations”, 73-82.9 “exceeds expectations”, 63-72.9 “meets expectations”, 53-62.9 “meets few expectations,” and under 52.9 “fails to meet expectations.”  Although the distribution of these grades (seen in the figure to the left) is weighted more heavily toward “meets expectations” than the standard grading distribution is weighted toward C, it roughly corresponds to the normal distribution of grades that we expect from any standard grading system.

The Governor has suggested that districts with schools that either fail to meet or meet few expectations should be opened to the school voucher program.  Given that these schools are in roughly the bottom 15% of Wisconsin schools and have failed to meet a set of fixed standards, it seems reasonable to think of these schools as “failing” schools in an important sense.


I will address the efficacy of vouchers at helping students in such schools soon, but let us first get a sense of how many students are in such schools as well as some important features of those students. The figures above are frequency distributions of schools, not students.  Luckily WDPI provides us with enrollment figures, so we can also determine how many are in failing schools.  This shows that 16.7% of students are in failing schools; the discrepancy in this figure from the percentage of failing schools is not all that unexpected.  One might conclude from this that larger schools fair more poorly than smaller ones.  And indeed a test of significance reveals a statistically significant negative correlation between the enrollment size of a school and the overall accountability score, meaning that larger schools seem to obtain lower scores.  Some of this correlation is likely due to statistically significant lower scores in non-elementary schools, an effect which is especially strong for combined primary/secondary schools (for whatever reasons).  We may be able to disentangle these effects with a more complex analysis, though I will not do this here.

Poverty is highly correlated with low school achievment

We can also characterize some of the possible causes of lower test scores.  Luckily we have information for each school about the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged as well as those not proficient in English; these are both commonly thought to negatively affect student performance.  It is often thought, at least in Wisconsin, that one major problem facing schools is the rapid influx of new Spanish speaking immigrants.  Thus it is thought that one way to improve schools is the adoption of an “English First” strategy, in which we ensure that all students understand English before teaching anything else.  Another view holds that poverty is one of the major causes of poor school performance.FREQENG0

Although we cannot test these hypotheses directly with our present data, we can test whether there exist correlations in the data that are consistent with them, as well as whether either a lack of English proficiency and/or poverty are a prevalent within Wisconsin schools.  Indeed, as expected, both the percentage of economically disadvantaged students and the percentage of students with limited English proficiency are negatively correlated with school overall accountability score, though the magnitude of the correlation for economic disadvantage is about twice that of limited English proficiency (-0.677 vs. -0.229).  Additionally, as expected, these two factors are positively correlated with one another as well (0.411).  However, these two features display very different frequency distributions , as can be seen in the plots I give here.  Many schools have a relatively large percentage of economically disadvantaged students.  In fact, more than half of schools have a percentage of economically disadvantaged students greater than 39%, and more than 30% of schools have more than half economically disadvantaged students.



However, very few Wisconsin schools have a significant population of students who are not proficient in English; only 5% of schools have a non-proficient population that is greater than 23% of their total student population.  It is very likely that schools with large proportions of students who are not proficient in English will tend to score worse, if only because language skills are important for all types of learning, but the data don’t seem to indicate that this is a major impediment to learning for most students in Wisconsin or for the success of most schools.  Rather, poverty seems to be a far more widespread problem for Wisconsin schools.  This seems to suggest that social programs which combat economic problems within the student population may also improve school performance. Of course, the data as it is does not support any more definitive statement about the role of poverty in school failure, but it does give us good reason to pursue that possibility further (and much has already been written on this subject already).

No support for the superiority of charter schools in the Wisconsin data

The final question I will consider is also the most interesting.   Do students in charter schools perform better than similar students in normal public schools?  The claim by many supporters of charter schools is that there is something wrong with poor performing public schools over and above the deficits of the students, and that charter schools generally perform better.  In order to investigate this question we must find some set of charter and public schools that are well matched in other respects.  This is made more difficult by the fact that just over half of all charter schools did not report accountability scores at all.  Obviously this is a serious deficit for any investigation of the efficacy of charter schools, and hopefully is corrected in the future.  However, we do have data from 102 charter schools, which is a pretty good sample, and so I will continue with the analysis by only considering these schools.

WICHARTER0A further difficulty arises when attempting to find a comparison class of public schools which are similar to the set of charter schools in most respects.  If we compare all charter schools with all public schools, we find that the public schools have significantly higher scores than the charters, but they also have significantly fewer students in poverty as well.

Because we showed previously that lower numbers of students in poverty is negatively correlated with higher scores, this is an unfair comparison.  We can, however, trim down our sample of schools such that both the charter school sample and the public school sample are similar with respect to economic disadvantage (as well as English proficiency for good measure).  This is not easy and requires us to limit our consideration to only those schools within what the WDPI calls “cities” (this includes large cities like Milwaukee, medium-sized cities such as Madison and Green Bay, as well as small cities such as Eau Claire and Appleton).  This is significant choice in my analysis, but it is the most straightforward way to match the two samples for economic disadvantage; all larger comparison sets I tested had significantly lower rates of economically disadvantaged students and higher accountability scores than the charter school set.

Comparing charter schools to regular public schools in Wisconsin cities, we find no significant difference in the percentage of economically disadvantaged children between charter and public schools, but also no significant differences in overall accountability score (using a simple t-test hypothesis test).  We obtain similar results if we just consider those schools in Milwaukee.  This result was very non-significant (significance level = 0.618), with the mean accountability score of non-charter schools being higher than that of charter schools.  A scatter plot of these results, with charter and non-charter schools marked in green and blue respectively, is shown above; the plotted regression lines are consistent with there being no significant difference in accountability score between charter and non-charter schools.  Therefore there doesn’t seem to be any evidence from the accountability data that charter schools perform better than normal public schools.  We could continue analyzing these data (perhaps with more complex methods) in an attempt to find some benefit to charter schools, though I don’t think this will provide much benefit.  The proponent of charter schools would seem to have the burden of proof to demonstrate their efficacy, and this has unfortunately not been addressed in the current policy debate in Wisconsin.