Choice Schools Must Share Data
Voucher advocates like Scott Jensen were wrong; parents need to know achievement data.
During our many years working for the non-partisan Public Policy Forum, each of us often advised new hires and interns on the virtues of patience. Working from only facts, and refraining from advocating for specific legislative solutions, usually meant waiting years to see the policy changes that we knew would result in better outcomes for families and taxpayers come to fruition.
This patience was rewarded recently when we read in the Journal Sentinel that former state Rep. Scott Jensen felt it has come time for private schools in the school choice system to share student performance and other data with the public. He was quoted as saying, “We’ve only now, sadly, begun to get to that level where that sort of information is available to parents. That sort of thing should have been done long ago.”
This is quite a change from what Jensen was saying in 2004, when we published the results of our research in a book (“School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience,” Yale University Press, 2003) calling for schools to share data with parents in order to empower them to make informed schooling decisions for their children. We demonstrated that school choice and market competition could not, and would not, improve education in Milwaukee unless the program’s design included a requirement that schools share performance and other data. The Washington Post’s editorial board’s take on our findings: “So little information is made available to Milwaukee parents that the market mechanism has never worked.”
When legislation was proposed that session to introduce some accountability to the program, local news outlets reported that Jensen felt the bills were “outright hostile to the choice schools in many ways” and were “weighing them down with measures they have fought off for years.” And he was partially right — he and other school choice advocates had been fighting off, for years, any attempts to help parents make good choices by providing them with necessary data about school performance.
According to the Department of Public Instruction, in the 2003-2004 school year, 13,268 students, including 1,099 4-year-old kindergarteners, used $75.2 million in taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend 107 private schools in Milwaukee. Today, 33,781 students use $248.1 million in state taxpayer funds to attend 261 private schools across the state. None of these schools was or is required, as a condition of taxpayer support, to release schoolwide performance data to the public or to prospective families.
Presumably, at least some of the 1,319 high school seniors using vouchers this year were among those 1,099 K-4 students in 2003-2004. Throughout their entire schooling career, the parents of these seniors have made important schooling decisions without adequate information. For those students and parents, unfortunately, patience was not a virtue.