Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Vouchers: Path to Second Rate

Here is a brief excerpt from a Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance publication: 
Appendix #4: Vouchers: Path to Second Rate
Under the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide private school choice programs, state funds are used to subsidize the cost of children to attend private, primarily religious, schools
participating in the program.
Table 1 shows the expansion of vouchers since Wisconsin began subsidizing private education in 1989.

Today, there is a push to expand the statewide program by increasing the enrollment cap of 1,000 students.

This push is the quintessential example of ideology trumping evidence and violates the first rule of policy development--do no harm. Below, we summarize some of the primary arguments against the expansion of the voucher program, and cite leading editorial voices from major
Wisconsin newspapers.
Vouchers Do Not Improve Student Learning

The fact is that numerous studies from across the country have shown that students offered vouchers do
not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools. For example, in its analysis of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 2011, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau released a five-year longitudinal study, which concluded that students in Milwaukee using vouchers to attend private schools
performed no better on standardized tests than their counterparts in public schools (see the study at ).
The Opportunity Costs of Vouchers: Path to Second Rate

For every dollar the State of Wisconsin spends on an ineffective program, such as vouchers, it loses the opportunity to invest in programs that are effective in improving teaching and
learning for all students.
In the 2014-15 school year almost seventy-five percent of applications for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program were for students previously enrolled in private schools. 56  When you consider voucher advocates stated goal of a "voucher in every backpack" you begin to understand just how expensive it would be to fund two systems of education.  As of 2012-13,
there were 97,488 students enrolled in private schools who did not receive a taxpayer subsidy.  Multiplying that number by the current voucher amounts to totals over $700 million.
If leading states and nations continue to invest in proven strategies to raise achievement for ALL students while Wisconsin resources are tied up in an ineffective and expensive entitlement
the Badger State will relegate itself to a second-rate competitor on the global stage.
Judging from years of evidence in Milwaukee, where the (Milwaukee

Parental Choice) program has existed since the 1990s, there is precious

little data to show that students in the voucher program do any better

than students in the mainline Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Editorial, February 19, 2013

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: Wisconsin cannot afford two parallel school structures — a public school

system, which is constitutionally mandated for those who profess to care about the state constitution, and

a private school system operating without the same mandates as the public schools.

Oshkosh Northwestern, Editorial, February 9, 2013

Vouchers Lack Public Accountability

Private voucher schools have little public accountability, which is in stark contrast to the strong controls imposed on public schools.  For example, private voucher schools do not have to comply with the state's Open Meetings and Open Records laws, are not required to meet the federal standards of hiring "highly qualified" teachers, and in fact, can even hire teachers who are unlicensed.
In addition, private voucher schools are not bound by most state instructional requirements, do not follow uniform state graduation requirements, and are not required to be part of the
state’s educator effectiveness system.  They do not have to accept all students, nor provide
students with the same due process protections afforded by public schools.
What guarantee do taxpayers have that the private “voucher” schools that open up shop have properly

trained staff and aren’t scams managed by someone simply trying to make a quick buck? And over time

what happens to the public school system in general as more money is diverted elsewhere while the public

system is left to deal with those students who have various special needs that require more resources?

That’s why expanding vouchers needs to be done only when everything else to improve the educational

environment has failed. And why in the world wouldn’t we all do what we can to help our local public

schools succeed?

Eau Claire Leader Telegram, Editorial, February 28, 2013

And the argument posed by some that “I pay property taxes so my taxes should go to the school that I

want my child to go to” is faulty. We don’t pay taxes to fund our child’s education. We pay taxes to fund

public education, plain and simple — and, again, mandated by the state constitution.

There are those with much money and many powerful lobbyists, in Wisconsin and across the nation, who

are pushing voucher schools as a way, step by step, to promote private education at the expense of public

education. Their ultimate goal is to have taxpayers pay for any student, no matter their zip code or their

income level, to go to a private school.

They have a foothold in our Legislature through campaign spending for like-minded legislators. They

have an ally in Walker. But they can’t be allowed to win.

Public education is on the line in Wisconsin. The governor’s plan is indeed a serious threat to those

870,000 children who depend on it.

Appleton Post Crescent: Editorial, February 23, 2013


Table 1: History of Wisconsin’s Voucher Program
Year    Act      Decision

1989 336 Open to pupils in City of Milwaukee

Family income less than 175% of the federal poverty level

Private schools had to be nonsectarian and in the City of Milwaukee

No more than 1% of the MPS enrollment could participate

No more than 49% of a choice school’s enrollment could be choice pupils

1993 16 Increased limit to 1.5% of the MPS enrollment could participate

No more than 65% of a choice school’s enrollment could be choice pupils
1995 27 Sectarian schools could now participate

Increased limit to 15% of the MPS enrollment could participate
Deleted the percentage limit on the share of choice pupils in a choice school
2005 125 Increased enrollment limit for the program to 22,500 pupils
Continuing pupils and siblings of pupils were eligible for the program if their
family income was under 220% of the federal poverty level
2011 32 Deleted the enrollment limit on the program

Raised the income threshold to 300% of the federal poverty level
Deleted the geographic requirement for schools in the program

Created a process under which a parental choice program could be created in
eligible school districts other than MPS
2011 15 Voucher program created for Racine

2013 20

Statewide voucher program established. Initially, it would be limited to 500

students the first year and 1,000 students every year thereafter.

Family income less than 185% of the federal poverty level
Those special-interests groups, which are offshoots of national groups and get much of their money from

outside the state, have mixed motives. Some of their supporters are truly devoted to preserving private,

especially religious, education. But others on a national level see the voucher push as a way for them

to make money investing in private schools. And others, for philosophical or political reasons, want to

undermine public education. Whatever the motivation, these groups are extremely well-financed and

well-connected politically.

The half of the state’s population that knows little about voucher schools needs to learn—and learn

quickly. This push is coming hard already. And the future of public education is at stake.

Appleton Post Crescent: Editorial, March 23, 2013


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Narratives and anecdotes

The State of the Union Address has become high theater, and the nature of the speech has changed over time.  President Reagan perfected the use of the personal story as a way of making a larger point.  He told real stories about real people, and often had them in attendance.  Those stories resonated with the American people and helped President Reagan achieve some legislative victories.  He and his speechwriters were able to "shrink the change" from a huge federal policy or program down to one person or small group.

The State of the Union Address has never been the same - as every subsequent president has tried to use personal stories and anecdotes to advance their own legislative ideals.

Here is an example of that technique from the folks in the School Choice movement:

Nice marketing.

Public schools have endless stories just like it.  Here at Friess Lake, we once had a student who became homeless during the course of the year.  There are no shelters or halfway houses anywhere near our district, so when the child was transferred there they should've had to attend the local, urban middle school.  Through extraordinary effort- we found a way to keep the child coming here.  Usually, that meant that one of our employees voluntarily drove down to a halfway point to meet a van twice a day.  And more, so much more.

Friess Lake was an oasis for this student, as so many public schools are for so many kids.  That's the real story of public education.  We have tons of real stories about real students who have been supported and nurtured through difficult times and against long odds.  Often, that support and nurturing is done anonymously and, historically, most of the people offering the extra support and nurturing were union employees. 

Gasp.  Wait.  What?  Public sector employees that care about kids and families?  Yup.  If you don't think that is happening- turn off the TV and get out more.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


In the wake of every election, there is often one political party that appears to be on the verge of death.  In the wake of the Democratic wave of 2008, some pundits breathlessly pronounced that the Republicans were DOA as a national party.  Then 2010 happened.

Right now, it looks pretty grim for the Democrats.  Rightly so, as they ran a bunch of lackluster candidates with no real message.  Democratic apologists who try to put lipstick on the pig and dismiss the results as nothing more than a typical second term midterm result are doing the party no favors.

Arguably, the Republicans could've seized control of the Senate earlier, but they continued to run some loopy candidates and tripped over themselves.  To their credit, Republicans seem to have learned some valuable lessons in the last couple election cycles.  There are now formidable Republican incumbents at every level of state and federal government across the states.

Democrats have a thin bench at the moment, and seem to be pinning all of their hopes on a successful Presidential run by Hillary Clinton. 

It is true that the 2016 Senate map is more favorable for the Democrats, but they still need to come up with a message that resonates with people.  Rote repetition of "I'm for the minimum wage, birth control, abortion, illegal immigration, and- oh by the way-Republicans are scary" is NOT GOING TO GET IT DONE. Enough already.

The Democratic Party is not dead, but it is not well, and it will not recover without undergoing an autopsy and honestly confronting the results.

I often wonder if we would be better off as a nation without political parties.  Interesting question, but also totally hypothetical.  We have a two party system- with independents and third parties occasionally nibbling at the margins.  In that scenario, it's best for the country when both parties are functional, on message, and bringing something valuable to the table. 

It's been awhile since both parties were legitimately strong at the same time.  I miss those days, and I actually believe it's better for the country when that is the case.  That said, it wasn't the Democratic Party's job to fix the Republicans a few years ago- and it's not the Republican Party's job to fix the Democrats. 

Time for an autopsy of the Democratic Party.  And then, if they're smart, they will pay attention to what they learn.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thirty Seconds to Mars, EMI, Corporate Tycoons, and Education Reform

I recently watched a documentary about a lawsuit between the band Thirty Seconds to Mars and the record label EMI.  I only know a little bit about Thirty Seconds to Mars, very little about EMI, and virtually nothing about the record business.

A few things I learned:
  • The record business is notorious for signing bands to really bad deals.  
  • The music industry is being radically transformed and the old models no longer work- for anyone
  • The music industry has a history of being "invaded" by people who made their money elsewhere and believe they can apply the same business practices and principles to the music industry.  That seldom ends well, and certainly didn't in the case of the guy who bought EMI
  • Thirty Seconds to Mars is a better band than I realized!
As I reflected a little bit on the show, I couldn't help but draw a parallel between the music industry and education.  The old models don't work in either industry, but that will be a separate post. 

Today, I'm going to focus on those who have had success in one industry and think they can swoop in and tell those in other industries what to do.  The titans of industry are now treated as the kings and saviors of education.  "We'll just take these business principles that were so effective in helping me build my company and apply them to education.  These 'government schools' have never been accountable, they're failing, they need people like me to save them."

Whatever.  Way back in the day- I taught and coached in Texas.  One of our main rivals was a school named Brazoswood.  We had a cheer for them: "Go back. Go back. Go back to the 'wood.  Your team ain't got no hustle and your coach ain't no good."   

That's kind of how I feel about the corporate leaders who are running around with all their ideas about education.  It's not that I don't think they should play a role, or that there are things we in education shouldn't do differently.  It's the arrogance and the lack of listening that drives me nuts.

The more I read about the design process, done right, the more I appreciate how good design changes come about by listening to the end user and developing empathy and understanding for the end user.  It doesn't start by coming in and saying: "Do this.  It worked for my (computer) business, and it will work for you."

Show me a corporate CEO who believes that listening to teachers and parents and students is the first step in the process and I'll show you a CEO who can help bring about worthwhile reforms.  Part of that listening will undoubtedly show that there is not a 'one size fits all' remedy for American education.  Equally important, there is no 'one size fits all' narrative for American schools either.