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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Battle School Vouchers - Iron Blogger Democrat - First Rebuttal

The Challenger wants an explanation of why I will not debate the philosophy of vouchers. "Philosophy matters," he tells us. There is twofold trouble with that. First, as the saying goes, in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice they are not. I will show that even other voucher practices outside of Milwaukee find the same problems and the same lack of success as we see here. Then there's the second problem with the Challenger's statements, and it is much more damaging to his own case: His whole philosophy of vouchers seems to be, "why not?"

Consider the words of the Challenger from my Opening Statement and the end of his own Opening Statement. He writes, "If the cost [of private voucher schools] is the same to the state, or less, then why should it matter where my child receives his or her education?" (from mine) and "If a private institution can provide an equal or better education for less money, then I think it is acceptable for the State only to dispense that amount of money" (from his). This is about the extent of his philosophical argument--if the State can save a buck or two, why not do vouchers? The Challenger's First Rebuttal keeps pulling in that direction (while, admittedly, making a different point): "In Milwaukee, the voucher is for $5,500 regardless of the cost of educating that child. The public school spends an average of $11,772 per pupil." Besides overstating the actual per-pupil expenditure of MPS (it's really only $8,991, expected to rise $200 in the fall), the Challenger is subtly playing that same "if it costs less" game.

This "why not?" philosophy is an incredibly weak foundation on which to base one's support of such a broad and wide-ranging program as vouchers. I am not swayed by it, and, frankly, even if I were not predisposed to oppose vouchers, "why not?" is hardly a convincing argument. If the Challenger had posed some strong reasons for vouchers--as Annette Polly Williams did when she crusaded for a way to help the most troubled of the troubled find a better education in Milwaukee--I could maybe move a little bit. Williams, ashamed of how her crusade has been taken over by people with the Challenger's "why not?" attitude, is now a staunch opponent of expanding the voucher law beyond its original intent to help parents without resources find options. If "why not?" is the best they can do, then they will fail. As to the issue of whether or not private schools really do cost less, I will address that below.

But before I do, I must commend the rest of the Challenger's Opening Statement, where he generally presents very little I can disagree with. He sums it up well here:
The State may compel the parents to educate their children, but not prescribe the parameters of that education except in the broadest terms. The State does, however, still bear the responsibility of providing that education. The State must at all times execute its responsibilities in a way that is equal to all citizens. [. . .] The responsibility of providing an education must be provided equally to all citizens.
In other words, it is in the best interests of the State to ensure that all of its citizens are educated and to provide the means for the education to take place. Many states, including Wisconsin, where the Challenger and I both live and blog, take this obligation so seriously it is written into the constitution; I think Wisconsin's constitution is representative when it says,
The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years.
No one doubts, I should hope, the Challenger's contention, codified in state constitutions across the country, that the State must make education available to every child.

Yet there is a second, equally important aspect to this obligation on the part of the State that the Challenger ignores, and it is absolutely central to every facet of the school voucher debate: In addition to providing the means for education to take place, the State also has an obligation to ensure that the education so provided is a quality one, and meets the standards deemed appropriate by the State. While not writ in the metaphorical stone of our constitution, Wisconsin has a quite elaborate legislated system of checks established--from requiring certification of teachers to monitoring student performance--to guarantee that the education our tax dollars buy is worth what we're paying for it.

It is here where Milwaukee's voucher experience can serve as a truly cautionary tale: The State has no means to ensure the quality of an education provided at a private school! Now, the Challenger does make two interesting points regarding accountability:
I remind Jay that the parents have the highest interest in the education of their children and would not have used the vouchers if they were happy with the education that their children were receiving from their public school. I know that I see every test, every assignment, every project, and every report card that my children bring home. I know the quality of education that they are receiving without the results of a standardized test. I do find it ironic that a public school teacher whose union passionately opposes rigorous standardized tests is so livid about the lack of testing of private schools.
As to the first, that parents can use the power of their shoe leather to moderate problematic schools, this has happened in Milwaukee to an extent--but only to a very, very small extent. Every year there is significant turnover in the number of students participating in the choice program; in the past five years that number has been around 25% (.pdf link)--meaning about 2500 parents believed that the program was not working for their children. That's a huge number. In the early years of the program, that number was as high as 44%. Yet, as the Washington Post notes, the market has not corrected itself (registration link--login with mailinator@mailinator.com, password mailinator):
In theory, the Milwaukee program, like the District [of Columbia]'s program, was supposed to empower parents, allowing them to leave poor schools--which would shut down or be spurred to improve--and join good ones, which would benefit from the increased public money. In practice, so little information is made available to Milwaukee parents that the market mechanism has never worked. By the Public Policy Forum's reckoning, only one school in the city has been shut down because too many parents abandoned it.
And as to the Challenger's second point, on testing: High-stakes tests are not bad because they are tests; high-stakes tests are bad because they're high-stakes. The data collected by testing are just that--data. It's what you do with those data that matter. Testing, by the way, is just one way of collecting data on schools. And not only do schools participating in the voucher program not have to administer the same tests as public schools, all of the other things about public schools that are transparent and assessable--from financing to personnel decisions--private schools are also not required to report.

You see, that's where the Challenger's argument falls apart, and where his "far more intelligent wife" has things right: Private schools are just that--private. And, as the Wisconsin State Supreme Court opined in 1998,
the mere appropriation of public monies to a private school does not transform that school into a district school under [the state constitution]. This conclusion is not affected by the amount of public funds a private school receives.
In other words, every single student in a choice school could be paid for by vouchers--the school's entire income could come from the state--and the state would not have the ability to tell it what to do or how to do it.

The Challenger himself makes this argument--that private schools don't have to follow the state's rules--many times in his First Rebuttal: "One must remember that voucher schools are private schools and have the right to maintain their admissions requirements. [. . .] Again, voucher schools are private schools. They can accept or reject whomever they choose." The Challenger is apparently defending these schools' violations of the law; if he had read the links I provided he'd find that if a school wants voucher money, it is illegal for them to turn students away, whether they be special education, low-performing, or what have you.

This is another reason why the Challenger's "if it costs less, why not?" philosophy is wrong: By not providing special education service, by not hiring certified teachers, by not wasting time or money on state testing, by not accepting low-performing students (or kicking them out once the voucher money has come in), voucher schools artificially hold their costs down. This is not a level playing field, for you market advocates out there, as the burdens placed only on public schools more than account for the cost difference. In fact, the Challenger himself admits this flaw in his First Rebuttal:
If Milwaukee would pass along the actual dollar amount that [voucher schools] would have to spend to educate a special-needs child to the voucher school, then I'm sure that they would accept more of them. [. . .] I think that if the government would release all of the money that it contends is necessary to educate the child, I suspect that there would be an entire swath of schools geared for middle and lower achieving students.
Religious schools are even more private than private schools. While the Challenger contends that spending money on the parochial schools that "take all comers," challenging or not, is constitutional (and reasonable people can disagree about that), if the State were to exercise the kind of control it would take to ensure the quality of the school, we would get into much more unconstitutional. Can we tell Messmer High School, a Catholic Milwaukee school that takes voucher students, that it must administer the state's WKCE test for tenth-graders (not for high-stakes purposes, but to allow for reasonable comparison)? If we do, would that not affect the school's curriculum, as they may "teach to the test"? What kind of Establishment Clause mess do we get into, then, when this state burden infringes on the religious instruction that is part and parcel of the school's program? Can we tell them what teachers they may hire? Must we make them report their finances? The list goes on and on, all of them good reasons why monitoring the performance of a religious school taking vouchers is nigh on impossible for constitutional reasons.

I promised way back at the beginning that I would address the practice--not the theory--of vouchers elsewhere. The Challenger claims that "it is important to look at Milwaukee's voucher program as a learning device, but there is a world outside of Milwaukee. There are other places where vouchers have been implemented with varying results. There are even other countries that have tried similar programs." First of all, I should note that Milwaukee's voucher system is the oldest and largest voucher program in the country, with the most data, such as it is, available to study.

Beyond Milwaukee, though, those other programs in other cities or countries have shown little if any good reason to hope that vouchers can ever live up to the promise of "theory": Cleveland's program, in the same GAO study both the Challenger and I cited, has not been heralded as a success--that line about how "the contract researcher teams for Cleveland and Milwaukee found little or no statistically significant differences in voucher students' achievement test scores compared to public school students" is all you need to know. (The "other investigators" mentioned by the GAO are studies funded by voucher supporters such as the Black Alliance for Education Options, headed by fired former MPS superintendent and voucher lover Howard Fuller, and Milwaukee's Bradley Foundation. You'll find studies funded by voucher opponents showing that vouchers are bad, too. That's why I chose to cite the non-partisan GAO.) But the Challenger also trotted out a Harvard study of Cleveland's program, a study that--I kid you not--is based almost solely on two hours of testing at two schools two years in a row. The researchers themselves explain, "The data upon which this evaluation is based are necessarily limited. [. . . T]he data available for analysis are not from a randomized experiment, enabling investigators to compare participants with a control group."

As to the privately-funded vouchers that have popped up in New York City, Washington DC, and Dayton, Ohio, the research cited by the Challenger noted that "In general, we found no evidence that vouchers significantly improved the test scores of ethnic groups other than African-Americans, most notably Latinos in New York and whites in Dayton. The impact of vouchers for African-Americans, however, was moderately large." While that's good for the African American students involved, it was no better a result, the researchers note, than reducing class sizes--a change in policy that benefits all students in the classroom, with lasting positive effects.

Chile has vouchers, sure; but Chile has no constitutional requirement to provide an education and, as a result, has many broad, rural areas without a public school at all. Hardly a one-to-one comparison for this country. New Zealand is closer, I suppose, but its voucher system is not without its own problems:
What were the results? The answer is at best mixed. It was good for some schools and some students, but disastrous for other schools, many of which served disproportionate shares of disadvantaged students. As New Zealand policymakers now busily retreat from the reforms, their experience offers some warnings for other countries thinking about moving down the same road.
Warnings we would be wise to heed.

Respectfully submitted,
Jay Bullock, Iron Blogger Democrat
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