Monday, March 23, 2009

School Choice, Change and Taxes

Aaron Rodriguez has an odd admission in the place usually reserved for the thesis statement of most essays in his post on school choice today:
Fernandez, an agent of change, comes from a tradition of being “outside” the education bureaucracy. And if there is anything that November has taught America, it's that a bold reformist candidate can allure a frustrated and embittered people into voting for change. With 30 years of failed MPS policies and wasteful spending, Rose Fernandez's message of "shaking things up" is gaining momentum and starting to draw attention in the Milwaukee area.

(emphasis added)
The problem with this argument is that for the last 20 years or so the status quo in Milwaukee Public Schools has been "school choice," or, to speak more specifically, a variety of school choice that has by the admission of the very people who long advocated for it underwhelmed.

Here's a recent article from the American, the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, an organization that can hardly be accused of being held in the thrall of teachers unions:
Even staunch proponents of school choice are conceding disappointment. Earlier this year, Weekly Standard contributor Daniel Casse reported, “The two most recent studies show that, since the implementation of the voucher program, reading scores across all Milwaukee schools are falling.” Howard Fuller, patron saint of the voucher program, has wryly acknowledged, “I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn’t been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought.” Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern, one-time choice enthusiast and author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, brought the concerns to a boiling point earlier this year when he declared, “Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tried in any urban school district [there is] . . . no ‘Milwaukee miracle,’ no transformation of the public schools has taken place.”
In fact, far from being an "agent of change," when it comes to school choice Fernandez wants expand the current program, the very one long time proponents are now saying has not worked. Here's a policy statement from her website:
The school choice program works. Thousands of Milwaukee families have benefited from this voucher program over the years. The choice program was not intended to replace MPS or to turn our attention away from fixing its many problems. It was designed to give parents the choice afforded wealthier individuals who can move to areas with better public schools. I was pleased to see the legislature raise the cap on participation in the program a few years ago, but I’d like to see the cap removed altogether.

(emphasis added)
Expanding the program means higher taxes. There's no other way around it. The voucher program now costs over $100 million, yet there's no word on Fernandez's web site as to where the money for a program increase is going to come from. One would imagine it might not be from the federal stimulus money, since Fernandez has apparently not decided on whether she will use it or not yet.

I digress, but only slightly. Throwing more money at a problem isn't going to solve it, right? That's what teachers unions want -- more money to build more schools and put more teachers on the public dime (all of which has the effect of making WEAC more powerful, of course). That used to be popular argument given by conservatives who used to scoff at giving more money to failing school districts. And they had a point, only now they're using that exact same argument to defend a program that's done little because they want to expand it.

But expansion is part of, if not the most significant part of, the problem. Again, from the American:
Milwaukee illustrates the uneven quality of new providers and reminds us that high performing schools are (like so many nonprofits) ill-equipped to expand in response to demand. Indeed, it has taken the celebrated KIPP schools—operated by an organization lauded for its aggressive expansion—14 years to grow to 65 schools enrolling 16,000 students in a nation where 95,000 K–12 district schools enroll 50 million students. Even today, the national KIPP network serves just one-sixth as many students as the Milwaukee public school system. The struggle to find capital and talent, overcome regulatory obstacles, and maintain quality has forced even growth-minded KIPP to move at a pace that would be considered maddeningly slow in almost any other sector (14 years, after all, was more than enough time for ventures like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon to grow from boutique firms to omnipresent brands serving millions of customers).

Personally, I think its inherently absurd to compare the progress of a middle school -- any middle school -- with Google, but since much of the intellectual heavy lifting for the voucher program was done on a "free market" weight machine, such is the gymnasium the "school choice" movement selected as its home court: if the choice movement wants to be serious about setting high standards for schools, both public and private, they first have to adhere to their own.

And that hasn't happened. Here's a more "liberal" slant on "school choice:"
For a long time, it was absurdly difficult to find out whether this was true in the one place where vouchers had been tried over an extended period: Milwaukee. After that city's initial small-scale initiative produced ambiguous, but generally unimpressive, results (and a lot of fighting over that data), the Wisconsin legislature chose to omit testing requirements altogether when the program was significantly expanded in 1998. This February, however, a group of researchers led by professors Patrick J. Wolf and John F. Witte produced the first installment of a study intended to follow how comparable groups of students in the public and private voucher schools perform over time. At least at the outset, they found no statistically significant differences in the test scores between the public and private school fourth and eighth graders for the 2006-07 school year. For the private as well as the public school students, the scores generally hovered around the 33rd percentile—in other words, a typically low performance for schools with high concentrations of poverty.
The bottom line: we were promised transformation and the choice program has been a wash, and by those standards it's failed. That's the actual reason for the "liberal" opposition to the program -- it just hasn't worked. If it had, educators, administrators and think tankers would be crawling out of the wood work to sing its praises, but it turns out institutional education is a difficult thing to master and an even harder thing to replicate when it's created out of the blue.

There are a lot of struggling inner city school systems around the country and the argument can be put forth that an obstacle to those school systems succeeding has been the reluctance of teachers and administrators to experiment with much more than asking communities for more money. Not Milwaukee. Milwaukee's one of the few places where school choice advocates have gotten their way. They've had their way for almost two decades now and have little to show for it. Fernandez may be the "outsider" candidate running to administer the DPI, but she's certainly not planning on changing anything when it comes to a program that has, by the very admission of the people who so passionately fought for it, underperformed.

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