Taking Aim at Voucher Schools
A JS reporter’s story details disturbing problems -- but not in her own newspaper.
A recent, in-depth story in the liberal American Prospect, “Milwaukee’s Voucher Verdict,” raises troubling questions about choice schools. Curiously, it was written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Erin Richards while she was on leave from her job, and nothing like it has been published in the newspaper. Even more curious, Richards was the reporter that then-Milwaukee School President Michael Bonds wanted the JS to remove from the education beat, and yet her story if anything suggests more sympathy for public schools.
But it would be a mistake to pigeon hole the story, which is thoughtful, broad in sweep and ultimately a very disturbing look at a Milwaukee education scene where not much seems to be working. Richards begin with a description of the Ceria M. Travis Academy, a fly-by-night K-12 choice school where a teacher was given no curriculum, few books (one out of date) and where just “one student scored at least ‘proficient’ in language arts on the latest state exams, and none were proficient in math, science, or social studies.”
That a school like Travis Academy has been in operation for two decades, Richards writes, calls into question the philosophy behind private school choice, that “Introducing competition to the government monopoly on public schools will lead to higher academic performance.”
From there the story makes many punchy observations, including:
-The 2010 wave election that brought in many Republican-run statehouses has greatly increased voucher programs, growing from 15 states and 24 programs that year to 28 states and 61 programs in 2016, with some voucher programs now reaching beyond low-income students to include the middle class.
-Public money for vouchers doesn’t require much public information. Voucher schools in Wisconsin, “thanks to expansions signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker since 2011—are not compelled by law to hold public meetings or disclose high school graduation or dropout rates. They are not obligated to make public any data on student suspension or expulsion or attendance rates, or any information on teachers, from salaries to absenteeism to a simple roster.”
-Though vouchers were supposed to improve education in Milwaukee, choice schools on average do about as poorly as public schools, and the exceptions among choice schools have tended to be Catholic and Lutheran schools, “which would have never maintained a presence in the inner city serving poor children without taxpayer assistance.”
-There are no state policies in Wisconsin that aim to expand good choice schools and shut down the many dreadful schools because “choice advocates don’t want to give more power to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction,” which is seen as an advocate of public schools.
-The minority of voucher schools may benefit from weeding out difficult students. Many have stringent discipline policies that allow expulsion for vaguely described offenses. “Grade promotion records… revealed many voucher schools had a student population that dramatically diminished as the grade levels advanced.” The most robust study of choice schools found “more than half the students who started ninth grade in a voucher high school were not still there by 12th grade.” (And when those students leave, they can by law go back to Milwaukee Public Schools.)
-Higher-performing choice schools tend to attract more parents “who are well equipped to make educational decisions.” To enroll at St. Marcus Lutheran, a showcase school for voucher success, parents have to “sign a covenant agreeing to get their child to school on time and to oversee homework… agree to sit down with teachers in their home at least once a year, and attend parent-teacher meetings. And they have to find their own transportation, as St. Marcus does not provide busing.” Public schools can’t make such requirements.
-The disappointing results of voucher schools, instead of triggering calls for change, have simply shifted the rationale for them. “Instead of being championed as a panacea for failing urban schools… choice is now being positioned as a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to all families.” (Republicans, I might add, have also increasingly justified them as cheaper than public schools.)
-As more states have approved voucher programs nationwide public support for them has fallen. “Between 2012 and 2016, nationwide public support for vouchers targeted at low-income students fell from 55 percent to 43 percent.” Interestingly, the support for vouchers was higher among Democrats than Republicans.
-As Wisconsin led the way in choice schools, other states put more emphasis on charter schools. That seems like a great misfortune. For what Richards’ story strongly suggests (and high-profile voucher supporter Howard Fuller concluded at least a decade ago) is that giving low-income parents the power to choose their child’s school does not result in bad ones being rejected. Quite the contrary.
In short, it appears we need the “nanny state” or some form of government oversight, which is what you get in charter schools: In Milwaukee that could be city government or UW-Milwaukee, for instance, that operate as the chartering authority. As Urban Milwaukee columnist and former Milwaukee School Board member Bruce Thompson has concluded, charter schools that are independent of MPS have had pretty promising results.
We might have had many more of these independent charter schools if not for the all the GOP political pressure and conservative Bradley Foundation funding for choice schools.
I supported school choice as an experimental program back in 1990, but the experiment has gone on for 27 years and choice schools in Milwaukee now constitute what amounts to the second largest school district in the state. And there is no evidence that education in Milwaukee has improved as a result. At what point will this be recognized by state and local policymakers? Clearly we need a new approach.
Richards completed this article while on leave from the Journal Sentinel, and with support from the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University. It’s certainly timely, given President Trump’s promise to spend $20 billion in federal funds on choice and charter schools. The experience of Milwaukee, the national trailblazer for vouchers, strongly suggests choice is not the way to go.
The brief controversy over Richards’ reporting in Milwaukee, which arose in the fall of 2014, was reported by Urban Milwaukee and was something of a comedy of errors. There is little evidence anyone with MPS besides Michael Bonds was pushing to replace Richards. And the idea that she has it in for public schools is hard to square with her American Prospect piece.
Of course, reporters like Richards must deal with editors, who can sometimes shape the direction of stories. Beyond that, the conventions of daily journalism, with the inverted pyramid narrative and “balanced” reporting, can often result in murky stories that leave readers with more questions than answers. Richards tells me she hopes to do a two-part article on some of her findings for the Journal Sentinel. I doubt it will be as incisive as this story.
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