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Friday, June 25, 2004

Battle School Vouchers - Iron Blogger Democrat - Second Rebuttal

Again, the Challenger has bravely called me out to answer a question. This time, it's why do I oppose school vouchers? See, I thought I made that clear in my Opening Statement. But it seems the Challenger missed it, so I'll have at it one more time. Before I do, though, let me quote the Challenger, and remind everyone why he does support vouchers.
I support school vouchers because we, The People, have tasked the State with providing our children a quality education. Given that individual parents retain the right to choose the education path for our children and the State should provide the means of education to all children equally, the State should issue vouchers for parents to educate their children in the quality school of their choice.
When I describe Milwaukee's voucher program metaphorically (I am an English teacher, you know), I say, imagine you have a pitcher of water. An imperfect pitcher--leaky, cracked, a little dirty, even. You want to get the water out of that pitcher before it's too far gone to drink. Luckily, there are some beautiful, pristine, perfect drinking glasses there with the pitcher. And, though each of those glasses already holds some water, there is room in those glasses for more.

But once those drinking glasses have been filled, you're still left with almost all of the water you started with in that same dangerous pitcher. Luckily (again), the Glass Man comes along and offers you some more glasses into which you can pour water. Let me see the glasses, you say to the Glass Man. No, he says; turns out, he'd rather you just trust him. Look at that pitcher, he says. Anything I have must be better, no?

You agree to take the Glass Man's glasses, sight unseen, and pour your water into them. But once you get the water poured, you can see that these new glasses are not all like those first, perfect vessels you poured your water into. Some of these are dirty, some others cracked and chipped, many leaking as badly as your pitcher or even worse. While some of your water is safer now, much of it isn't. And in all your efforts to pour out the water, your pitcher hasn't gotten any better.

This is what has happened in Milwaukee: While there are many quality private schools with long-established track records of success here--the schools voucher advocates point to and say, "See, wouldn't it be nice if every family could afford to send their children there?"--the available space in those schools fills quickly. It is these schools that violate the spirit and the letter of the law by cherry-picking the best from the voucher applicants.

But beyond those quality schools, we have created a cottage industry here in Milwaukee, a situation where anyone--literally, anyone--who takes a notion can hang out a shingle, ask his friends and family to be "teachers," and start collecting taxpayers' money. And in any conceivable voucher situation anywhere, this same process will repeat itself, as the quality private or parochial schools in the area quickly fill their empty seats and the state is left with voucher families it must satisfy. Private schools taking voucher money will multiply like proverbial rabbits.

I quoted the Challenger's rationale in full above because in it, he uses a particular word twice: quality. What has happened here in Milwaukee, in this growth industry we call choice schools, is an utter breakdown in quality control. Not every voucher school is going to be as good as those long-standing private and religious schools that inspire hope and pride--very few, in fact, in their early years of operation will even come close. And the fact that the door of this industry is open to any and all comers is just asking for trouble.

In my opening, I cited three egregious recent examples. The Challenger countered with a few citations of bad public school teachers, but I ask you to compare the several million-large pool of public school teachers to the 111 Milwaukee choice school administrators--you would expect to find a greater raw number of bad apples among the teachers. But at least there are safeguards in place to try to prevent bad teacher behavior; it wasn't until the past year that the state of Wisconsin finally considered such simple precautions as background checks for choice school employees, and they just approved them in March. Remember, this is a program that has been in place since 1990.

The Challenger has not pressed the issue of "white, suburban, movement-conservative Republicans" that I raised in my Opening, and that's okay, as I admit is was perhaps too provocative. But those legislators, the ones Democrat Annette Polly Williams found herself strange bedfellows with in creating the program and expanding the program, were the ones who stripped accountability provisions from the bill expanding the Milwaukee program to include religious schools in 1995--in part for the same Establishment Clause reasons I mentioned in my First Rebuttal.

But the list of problems is not limited to those three schools I named in my opening. From the first few months, and throughout the 1990s, and to the present, choice schools have collapsed, folded, imploded, or just plain been run into the ground by the clueless folk in charge. Who picks up the pieces when this happens, without reimbursement from the state? That's right--the public schools.

And just so we're clear: These schools are not being shut down by parents pulling their kids out, and they are not being shut down by the state for failing to meet minimum academic standards. Only one school in recent memory has been forcibly closed, the Mandella School of Science and Math, and that was only after the school's landlord brought action in court for rent delinquency. (And, in a twisted something or other, Mandella is still on the list of schools participating in the program next year that I downloaded from the state's website this morning!)

Perhaps this is why the Challenger thought I contradicted myself when I noted the contrast between masses of parents abandoning the program and how few schools actually close. This is not a contradiction--it is a frightening confirmation that market forces are not working to improve education in Milwaukee. Think of it--thousands of parents pulling their students out of bad schools and yet those schools stay open.

The sad case of Alex's Academics of Excellency (yes, that's its real name) is instructive. This is a school that was ordered closed by Milwaukee's building inspectors in 1999, back when it was just Alex's Academic of Excellence. After moving repeatedly during the 1999-2000 school year, that summer the school's CEO (a convicted violent rapist) was jailed for tax fraud in an unrelated case. This was around the same time a private voucher program was refusing to send students to the school because it did not meet their academic standards. By the fall of 2003, the school was still open (now known as Alex's Acadmics of Excellence) and getting my taxpayer money while staff got stoned and drunk instead of teaching the children, and the state had to explain how its hands were tied.

And the school is still taking students and voucher money for this fall!

The solution is clearly not the market--and what we're really talking about here is a free (or at least free-er) market for education. In any market, there are winners and there are losers. But we're not talking about losers like New Coke or Daewoo here--we're talking about children. Do we really, really want to say that the market, which guarantees losers among the winners, is the best way to educate our children? This is why the New Zealand experience is perhaps more relevant that you might realize.

The Challenger hurts his case further in this paragraph:
My fictional "why not?" argument [ed: I contend it is not fictional and stand by my First Rebuttal] is further refuted by Jay when he reasons that private schools artificially keep their costs lower 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" etc. This, according to Jay, creates an uneven playing field between public and private schools. Quite the contrary, public schools artificially raise their costs by a burdensome certification process, overblown bureaucracy, lavish benefits, and other wasteful spending. In fact, the school choice program in Milwaukee is saving MPS $100,000,000. The private schools are already subject to market forces. I guarantee you that a parent who forks over a few thousand dollars per kid to have them educated is far more demanding that the money be spent efficiently, and the school officials are far more responsive to a paying customer.
First of all, I think I've disproved the notion that the schools are responsive to market forces; second of all, the Challenger is badly misplacing the blame for the dramatically higher overhead of running a public school. The same State that requires public school districts to hire certified teachers tells private schools that they can hire whomever, whatever their level of training or penchant for molesting kids. The same State that necessitates the "burdensome bureaucracy" through its mandates (not to mention mandates from the feds) exempts private schools from those mandates. The State is taking away with one hand and giving with the other. The Challenger may have a point on the "lavish benefits," but if you want qualified teachers you have to remunerate them as well or better than they'd find in the private sector. And that commentary he links to on "wasteful spending" is laughable if you read it--off the point of this debate and not even about anything in Wisconsin. To further demonstrate my point, though, I encourage the Challenger (and anyone else) to call Central Services at the Milwaukee Public Schools and see how long it takes to reach a live person. Virtually all support staff have already been cut, and the cuts keep coming.

It also hurts that the Challenger is a little sloppy with his facts; for example, in that paragraph he claims that MPS saves a hundred million dollars a year from the voucher program. But if you read the press release he cited, as well as the full memo it is based on (.pdf link), you'd find that the $100,000,000 is the potential cost of ending the program statewide under the worst-case scenario. The memo itself notes (and I don't even need to add emphasis!):
Finally, it must be emphasized that these examples are speculative. Assumptions have been made on the effects on MPS membership and shared costs and the examples are calculated as if all these factors had been fully effective in 2003-2004. Changes to the assumptions could significantly modify the results.
The Challenger also apparently didn't note the import of what I quoted from the Washington Post. "I don't have any problem," he says, "with forcing schools to publish readily available statistics like teacher qualifications, attendance, graduation rates, etc. Most, if not all, private schools already gather these statistics because they use them to advertise to parents." The Post noted, though, that the problem is that this info doesn't get to parents! I recommend the original Public Policy Forum report (.pdf link) the Post referenced, which is chock-full of other good data about the Milwaukee voucher program.

What's most frustrating about the Challenger's position is that he is actively campaigning for a continuation of the untenable situation as it exists now. Remember that in his first rebuttal he asserted that private schools were private and could do what they wanted. This has been the whole problem--there is no oversight to ensure that the tax money going to these schools is buying a quality education, and as a result, our children are losing. And he stands by this, even hoping that fairness written into the law will be overcome: "If the State wants to require certain admissions standards in order for a private school to receive voucher dollars, then the State is wrong. [. . .] If all of the private schools refused all voucher kids, the public pressure to change the law would be irresistible." I'm stunned.

I began with the Challenger's own words, and the overwrought analogy of the water pitcher, and in closing, I will return to them. Sandwiched between those two sentences where he claims to care about quality, he slips in this gem: "The State should provide the means of education to all children equally." I'm often amazed at how often the "equality of opportunity" crowd slips into "equality of condition" mode when it comes to school vouchers. The State does provide the same opportunity of education to every single student in the State. And I have to tell you that even my own on-the-list-of-failing-schools school graduates top-notch students who go on to succeed in top universities and their chosen professions. Wisconsin's public school choice law even allows intradistrict transfers, so if you're displeased with the schools in your own district, you can send you child, for free, to another one. (This is a common law across the country.) Where is the inequality?

Finally, remember how, after all the pouring of water into all the glasses of variable and sometimes questionable quality, you still have a broken, dirty pitcher full of water? Since the inception of school vouchers and choice in Milwaukee, the business of fixing our pitcher has gone by the wayside. I was not engaging in "classic misdirection" by pointing out that the students who benefit from vouchers could also benefit from class-size reduction, which also benefits those who don't benefit from vouchers. This is just one example of how attention gets distracted from the real work of improving the public schools by ideological non-fixes such as vouchers.

Respectfully submitted,
Jay Bullock, Iron Blogger Democrat

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