Wisconsin Charter Schools Study

Welcome to the online home of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Study (WCSS). The WCSS is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and headed by University of Wisconsin Madison professor John F. Witte in cooperation with faculty members and graduate students from the UW Department of Political Science, the School of Educational Administration, and the LaFollette School of Public Affairs.

On Charter School Performance

A recent article (August 17, 2004) in the New York Times has created some stir over the academic performance of charter school students. In our estimation, the reporter must not have fully understood the AFT report on which she based her article. We believe that the article misrepresents both charter schools and the AFT's report. Further, the editorial board of the New York Times was incautious and reckless when interpreting the report's findings on the August 18th editorial page. The AFT's report does not show many statistically significant findings, nor does the report's text claim to. Instead, when one considers two major educational factors, race of students and their families' income, the AFT's simple tables report that public charter school students do not achieve differently than similar traditional public school students.

Our own work on charter school performance shows quite different---and more positive---findings than the AFT's report. For 4th-graders, we find that charter school students are significantly less likely to perform at minimal or basic levels of achievement than their traditional counterparts. We found similar results, though not as strong, for 8th-graders. See our executive summary and full study here. Charter schools may not be for all students---that is why they are a choice---but they serve some extremely well.


In the past decade, charter schools have emerged nationally as the main source of competition for traditional public schools. Funded by the U. S. Department of Education and headed by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor John F. Witte, the Wisconsin Charter Schools Study conducts research at the school, district, state, and national levels. Below is an overview of the project's strands of research. To download the complete project proposal in portable document format, click here. A viewer is available from Adobe.

School-level research

Relying on a range of different measures, including state achievement test data, dropout and completion rates, attendance, school attrition and mobility rates, grades, disciplinary measures, and case study data, the study will compare the performance of charter schools in the various choice environments and situations both with each other and with traditional public schools. Because many of Wisconsin's charter schools are at-risk schools, special attention will be given to presenting a wide array of performance outcome measures. In addition, the study will explore how competition affects both charters and public schools in terms of classroom practice, school resources and administration, teacher community, teacher and student satisfaction and attrition, and community involvement.

District and state-level research

In Wisconsin, the number of charter schools has increased from 18 in 1997 to over 130 today, and they can be found in very different environments. At one extreme is the very competitive environment of Milwaukee, where low-income parents have access to:

  1. public magnet schools;
  2. suburban public schools;
  3. secular or religious private schools using vouchers,
  4. charter schools under contract with the Milwaukee Public Schools; and
  5. charter schools under contract with the City of Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

At the other extreme are districts in which a single charter school, under contract with the district, is the only alternative to traditional public schools. By analyzing charters throughout the state, and selecting a number of districts outside Milwaukee for in-depth comparative study, the study will assess the development and performance of charter schools in a variety of competitive contexts.

National-level research

State laws regarding charter schools vary widely in their content and scope. To date, most of the original research on the variance among state laws has been conducted by advocacy groups with direct interests in supporting particular kinds of laws, specifically those that provide the most freedom from regulation. Although these scales have been very useful, we also believe they provide a limited description and judgment of the values underlying these laws. Thus, the Wisconsin Charter Schools Study will be coding charter laws, as amended through 2002, on six dimensions: applications and authorization; fiscal support; governance; teachers and personnel; students; and accountability (for performance and 'publicness'). The subscales will be compared to existing scales and then will be used as dependent variables in a model estimating what state factors are associated with which legal characteristics of the laws.

Wisconsin Charter Schools Study
Attn: John Witte
LaFollette School of Public Affairs
1225 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706

Page last edited December 12, 2003.