Monday, January 30, 2006

All Hail the Free Market!

The Journal-Sentinel reports today that an eight-year-old provision in Wisconsin's open enrollment program will end after this school year.

This provision, which has been around since open enrollment began in 1998, allows a school district to limit the number of students who transfer out of its district under the open enrollment policy. Since each time a student leaves a district the state aid provided to that district decreases, the open enrollment policy could actually work to shut down certain school districts unless limits on how many students could leave the district are in place. The absence of the provision for the 2006-2007 school year threatens the financial stability of at least 10 rural school districts, according to the JS report.

It simply doesn't pay to have a district of, let's say, 100 students. The costs of the teachers at different grade levels, the administration, etc., are simply too high. If districts reduce to a certain size, they get eliminated. It doesn't take all of the students leaving the district to make that happen. So what, then, happens to those students who chose not to leave the district before it closes down? Well, they're moved into another district. So much for school choice.

In the anti-cap world of Republican educational politics these days, the open enrollment cap presents an interesting case. Some Republican state legislators have proposed allowing the open enrollment cap to rise to 15% of a district's total enrollment (right now the cap is 10%) and then keeping it at that level. According to Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon), "I do believe parents have the right to choose their district, but we have to consider and understand the realities of what's going on in some of these small rural districts."

Republican legislators who are sticking to their anti-cap guns simply reference the free market for their defense. This is Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) on the issue: "If students are leaving a district in large numbers, it becomes important for that school district to evaluate why they're leaving and change what they're doing. ... That, to me, is just based on market principles and competition. It creates a competitive environment."

In other words, it doesn't matter that some students still chose to stay in the school district that is going to be closed, they're choice just wasn't competitive enough. And I'm not arguing that all choices should be honored by the state. There are, however, some real incentives for some kids to be educated in a school district that is a reasonable distance from home. Transportation is a big one. Forcing students to attend a district that's many miles from their home will not only require long bus rides each day to and from school, it could also prevent those students who cannot find personal transportation from participating in school activities that do not correspond with the regular school day when the buses are running.

Some people will undoubtedly argue that capping the open enrollment program is forcing some students to stay in a district when they'd prefer to leave. This is only half true. When selecting where you live, everyone knows that school districts are determined by the location of the house, condo, apartment, etc., you choose. I'm not saying you should be completely stuck in that district if you want to partake in public education. The state should provide reasonable accomodations to allow students to travel from district to district, which is what open enrollment does. But when open enrollment threatens the sustainability of one of those districts, that's when it becomes unreasonable. We allow receiving school districts in the open enrollment program to cap the number of students they accept from other districts to prevent against overcrowding, why should we not allow sending districts to make similar caps to prevent against undercrowding?

The fact is that what the free market dictates is not always in the best interest of society as a whole. Simply relying on a free market ideology to drive all of your policy decisions, like Vukmir and others are doing, without thinking through those policies on an individual basis is short-sighted governing.

Besides, there are numerous reasons students could be opting for open enrollment in other school districts, only one of those possibilities is that their local district is failing. Just as likely are scenarios where the local district isn't able to offer certain extracurricular activities a student is seeking or the local district is not considered by a parent to be as sound academically as a neighboring district. Neither of these situations mean the local district is necessarily failing. They just mean that for those students who can afford personal transportation, a requirement of participating in the open enrollment program, a neighboring district is considered a better option.

In some instances, the free market simply can't see those students who are either happy with their local school or need it for reasons such as transportation. Is the free markets inability to se them reason enough to close down those districts?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Journal-Sentinel OpEd Standards Dropped Off the Table For This One

I can't believe this thing is going to be printed in tomorrow's Journal-Sentinel. It's an op-ed by Dale Reich.

The piece starts by Reich, a deeply religious person, describing an out-of-religious experiment he undertook to see the world through the eyes of an atheist. And as if you couldn't already guess that this misguided experiment was an utter failure, he uses the rest of the op-ed to demonstrate just how bad it failed.

I know it's an op-ed, but that doesn't mean you need to print garbage like this. I don't even know if I'd print something like this in the letters to the editor. It's that bad.

A Concealed Carry Backfire?

Conservatives and the mainstream media have teamed-up for a rousing neighborhood game of kick the governor the past few days. And when our nation is at war, no less! Oh wait, I forgot that only works with a Republican president. My bad.

In any event, let’s run down the causes for the beating. First there was the travel contract indictment, then the “legal but improper” case against a Doyle political appointee, and now the Spivak and Bice report about a group of engineers donating money to Doyle three months after being awarded a contract for the Marquette Interchange construction project.

Forget the facts of these cases. It doesn’t matter that there is no evident line of impropriety between Georgia Thompson and Jim Doyle, that what the Doyle political appointee did was ultimately legal, or that the Marquette Interchange contract went to the best bid. Those pesky details don’t matter. The damage is being done. As I mentioned in a post last week, these issues are not about finding proof or even genuinely caring about the public good. They’re about muddying the waters surrounding Doyle’s ethics in an election year for conservatives and about selling the news for the mainstream media. That doesn’t take even-handed, fact-filled arguments. It just takes screaming loudly and incessantly.

These attacks on Doyle do, however, present an interesting possibility in terms of one of the right’s core election year issues: concealed carry. The state senate has already overridden Doyle’s veto. That wasn’t a big surprise. The assembly, on the other hand, is not a slam-dunk for the GOP. A number of key Democrats who voted for the passage of the bill initially have not committed publicly to voting for it again in order to override Doyle’s veto. And now that the Democratic governor is coming under intense attacks on his ethics, the likelihood increases that Democrats will not allow Doyle to succumb to the first veto-override in Wisconsin in many years.

After all, with the ethical accusations, however weakly founded, already doing political damage, the Doyle administration can hardly stand the leadership questions that a veto-override would bring, especially considering Democratic votes are required to make it happen. This is an interesting case of one piece of the Republican campaign strategy potentially backfiring on another piece of that strategy.

If the Democrats in the state assembly are smart they would not let Doyle fall to a veto-override. That hit would be very damaging now and down the stretch heading into November. However, simply rejecting the veto-override does not put the Dems out of the woods because that will, in effect, strength a core issue for the Republicans. There’s a small chance the conservative base will revolt in the face of a failed veto-override vote and blame the failure on a lack of leadership in the Republican Party to get this thing done after over a decade of trying, but I don’t find that too likely. And even if it does happen it’ll be a very contained revolt, only spoken about in the inner-circles. It’s more likely that rejecting the veto-override will fuel the conservative base even more to oust Doyle and put in power a Republican governor who will not veto their ability to carry a deadly weapon around the state.

This makes it very important for Democrats, in the instance that they sustain the veto, to find a way to thwart the Republican base’s fury by finally playing some offense. As soon as the veto-override fails, the Democrats should be prepared to offer up a concealed carry bill of their own. Yes, you read that right. I think the Dems should put forward a concealed carry bill this year, one that has the public support of Governor Doyle.

There are two main types of concealed carry laws in the 46 states that have such laws. Republicans like to quote the 46 states figure as if they were all the same, but they’re not.

One type of concealed carry law is called “shall issue,” which exists in 37 states. Under this type of law, the state may not arbitrarily deny a request to carry a concealed weapon. Of course, certain situations exist under these “shall issue” laws when someone would not be allowed to carry a concealed weapon, such as if they’ve committed a felony in the past. However, it’s the state that bears the burden of proof to show that a citizen is not fit to carry a concealed weapon under the “shall issue” laws. Hence, the number of concealed carry applications resulting in a permit issuance would be high.

The “may issue” form of concealed carry laws is quite the opposite. The “may issue” type of concealed carry law, which exists in 9 states, allows the state much more leeway in accepting or denying applications for concealed carry. In other words, it’s the applicants who must bear the burden of proof in explaining why they need to have the ability to carry a concealed weapon. For most liberals, this “may issue” type of concealed carry law is far preferable to the “shall issue” type ultimately because the number of permits issued would be potentially quite smaller.

The Republican concealed carry bill that was vetoed by Doyle this year and is going before the state assembly later in the week for a veto-override vote is of the “shall issue” variety. After sustaining the governor’s veto and subsequently his leadership credibility, the Democrats should turn around and propose a concealed carry law that’s of the “may issue” variety. The "may issue" law proposed by Democrats could also include such provisions as shorter permit periods (the Republican proposal is five years) and allowing counties to develop different concealed carry requirements to account for the difference between carrying a concealed weapon in, say, rural Price County and carrying that same weapon in densely-populated Milwaukee County.

This would do two things.

One, it would reclaim the debate over protection for the Dems. Right now the GOP owns that debate nationally through the War on Terror and locally in Wisconsin through the concealed carry laws that only they have proposed. Republicans in Wisconsin have made concealed carry into a black and white issue. Either you’re for concealed carry and, in their wayward logic, the second amendment or you’re against those things. But those don’t need to be the terms of the debate. Proposing a “may issue” type of concealed carry bill would show that the Dems are for both personal protection and societal protection. Personal protection because they are willing to allow some people to carry concealed weapons, and societal protection because they demand putting stringent requirements on who is allowed to carry a concealed weapon.

Two, proposing a “may issue” concealed carry law would shake up the Republican base. As long as the concealed carry issue is black and white, the Republican camp will be filled with all of those people who feel uneasy about relatively lenient application requirements and five-year permits, but ultimately think that some people should have the right to carry a concealed weapon. If an alternative can be presented, many would potentially jump ship and find the Dems version of concealed carry to be in keeping with the spirit of the second amendment and simultaneously a safer bet for society as a whole.

Governor Doyle is taking a beating on ethics issues right now, but those hits only mean so much at this point. Those who are following the issues closely have, for the most part, probably already decided which party they’re voting for on election day. For those who are hearing the conservative screams from a distance, there is a lot of time between now and November to forget. But allowing Doyle’s concealed carry veto to be overridden would not only strike a blow to the image of the governor’s leadership, it would also energize the right even more to see a decade-long battle end in victory—with a Democrat in the governor’s office, no less.

Simply sustaining the governor’s veto isn’t without consequences either, though. The Dems need to start playing some offense, and there’s no better place than by challenging on its face one of the core election year issues of the right.

Friday, January 27, 2006

LFB Letter to Mayor Barrett

As promised, here's the letter sent from Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director Robert Lang to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on January 23, 2006 regarding the school voucher program in Milwaukee.

The letter lays out responses to three questions posed to the LFB by Mayor Barrett. The first two questions deal with the fiscal effects of eliminating the voucher program in Milwaukee while the third question considers how much Milwaukee taxpayers pay for an MPS student in comparison to a voucher student. The responses to these questions form the basis of Barrett's proposal to alter the funding of the voucher program.

You can read more about Barrett's proposal here and here.

You'll Get Nothing and Like It

Here's an idea from Deb Jordahl: Make already largely property-poor and cash-strapped Milwaukee taxpayers pay more to educate voucher students. That'll teach MPS to get its act together. Maybe the youth of Milwaukee will finally start to appreciate what they have in the MPS system when they see their parents need to pay extra in property taxes for their peers to go to a private school.

Right now Milwaukee taxpayers pay $1816 per MPS student while forking over $2858 per voucher student. If the cap was lifted completely on the voucher program, as Republicans are currently proposing, Milwaukee taxpayers would need to pay $1042 more to educate each student who goes from MPS to a voucher school; that's in addition to the $15,370,542 extra they already pay annually for the 14,571 current voucher students.

Sound fair? Apparently to Jordahl it does, in her criticism of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's proposal to allow Milwaukee taxpayers to pay the same amount for voucher students as they do for MPS students. After all, she asserts, "Holding Milwaukee taxpayers harmless for children who opt out of MPS will remove a financial incentive for MPS to improve."

Jordahl makes a big and false assumption here. She assumes that hurting Milwaukee taxpayers financially will simultaneously hurt MPS. In actuality, the MPS property tax levy per student does not decrease as more students go into voucher schools, so where's the supposed incentive? I suppose the argument could be made that as students move from MPS to voucher schools there will be pressure put on MPS because its employees will start to loose their jobs and its programs will start to be cut. But wouldn't that happen regardless of whether you make Milwaukee taxpayers pay extra for a voucher student? Even if MPS students and voucher students cost Milwaukee taxpayers the exact same amount, if more and more students enter the voucher program from MPS the overall funding for MPS will decrease, thereby forcing layoffs and program cuts. Making Milwaukee taxpayers pay more for a voucher student makes no difference in this scenario; all it does is financially strain an already largely property-poor and cash-strapped community.

Another assumption Jordahl makes is that Barrett's proposal will be financially harmful to other school districts across the state. Actually, right now non-Milwaukee state taxpayers are making money off the voucher program (Jay at Folkbum has a great explanation of why the voucher program costs less than public schooling, and it isn't anything to celebrate).

According to a letter sent to Mayor Barrett by Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director Robert Lang, if the voucher program did not exist and all of the voucher students were MPS students today, the property tax levy for other districts around the state would increase $121.4 million due to a reduction in state aid to those districts. In other words, right now there's $121.4 million extra going to state aid coffers per year because of the voucher program (again, there are some not-so-great reasons voucher schools are cheaper). That's big-time savings, but right now it's coming largely on the backs of Milwaukee taxpayers, who would see their annual property tax levy decrease by $25.6 million if the voucher program did not exist today and all 14,571 voucher students were back in MPS.

Mayor Barrett is not proposing, however, to eliminate the voucher program, despite the fact that would be in the best purely fiscal interest of the City of Milwaukee. All he is asking is to take 1/3 of the extra money state coffers gain through the voucher program and use it to even out the score with Milwaukee taxpayers. The state still gets to keep the other 2/3 of the savings (although it may be useful to consider, as the voucher program gets bigger, to shift some of that 2/3 to the voucher schools and ask them to use it for providing some of the special needs services that public schools students are entitled...but that's another debate for another day).

And as if asking the state to even the score with Milwaukee taxpayers wasn't fair enough, Barrett's proposal only pertains to the voucher students who enter the program above the 14,571 students who are already in it. For those current voucher students, under Barrett's proposal, Milwaukee taxpayers will continue to pay $15,370,542 extra per year. That hardly seems like “all Barrett cares about is making sure he doesn’t take the heat for high property taxes,” as Jordahl accuses.

Some conservative bloggers, albeit very hesitantly, have already given a positive nod to Barrett's proposal (see here and here for two examples). I guess I just don't see Jordahl's reasoning for attacking it. If she and others are truly interested in helping Milwaukee kids and their families, Barrett's proposal would be championed across the board.

Note: I received the letter to Mayor Barrett from LFB Director Robert Lang yesterday. As soon as I get by a scanner, I'll put it up on this blog.

UPDATE: The letter is now up. I link to it in this post now, but here it is again for good measure.

Tax Freeze + Smaller Government = Big Deficit...Say It Ain't So, Scottie

It appears Scott Walker has started to diversify his hobbies.

Turns out tax freezes and smaller government aren't always the answer. No biggie. When the s#*t hits the fan, just publicly threaten those employees who can't make your single-minded policies work.

See, he has more ideas for running government than just cutting taxes.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Santiago Makes Offer, Not Request

The Journal-Sentinel reports today that the UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Carlos Santiago is seeking $300 million in funds to help the campus "fulfill its mission." Not all of these funds are expected to come from the state, but the Republican-controlled (i.e., tightfisted) legislature would be required to pony-up some cash to make Santiago's mission a reality.

The JS article mistakenly, however, frames Santiago's overture as a request. Really, it's an offer.

While a conservative virtue is less government spending (unless you're the Bush administration), another conservative goal is the privatization of education. Indeed, the two are very much linked. We talk a lot about privatization in the realm of K-12 education, but higher education is susceptible to it, as well. What Santiago is offering is to make UWM a largely privatized campus, but in order to do so he needs a little seed money from the state to get things started.

A more privatized UWM campus means less strain on public funds in the future, Santiago will surely argue when making his case to the state legislature. Less strain on public funds = smaller government = less in taxes. Right?

Perhaps. But the privatization of UWM would mean more than just a new source of funding. It would fundamentally change the way the university operates. Everything from which applicants to admit to what courses to offer will be impacted by the type of drastic shift in university purpose that Santiago is pursuing. Most importantly, however, privatization changes the authority on campus. The campus will begin responding to private interests ahead of public interests. As much as those two are on the same page, the transition will be transparent. But I imagine much of the time those two interests won't quite see eye to eye.

Right now this is just a mission, but once the deals are brokered and funding starts to shift from the state to the business community--which it already has in part for most large public research universities, including UWM and UW-Madison--those fundamental changes will quickly become a reality. Just one look at what has already happened to the way research funds are going to be allocated in the future at UWM makes it clear just how quickly those changes will take place.

I'm not blaming Santiago for his offer. I mean, he was brought to UWM to make it better, which in large part requires funds. Since state funds are scarce, he's diversifying.

But make no mistake, more is on the table here than a request for money.

Campaign Strategy 101

As a Republican official said after playing one of the school voucher attack ads to members of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. last week: "The governor's race in Wisconsin has started."

So far it appears to be the Republicans who are coming out on the offensive. Let's run down the the apparent strategy:
  1. Secure the Base: With TABOR down, although probably not completely out, the big issues here become the two G's--guns and gays. The most heated right now is over the concealed carry bill, but the real firestarter as November gets closer will surely prove to be the anti-gay marriage amendment. Anti-gay rhetoric has been a benchmark of the Bush/Rove election strategy since the Texas governor's race in 1994. While the tactic of choice in '94 and '00 was spreading rumors of pro-gay sympathies among opponents, the tactics matured (I use that term loosely) by '04 to become the proposal of a federal anti-gay marriage amendment less than ten months before election day and the inclusion of anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot in eleven states. Since all eleven amendments passed and, more importantly for the Republicans, brought droves of social conservatives to the polls, the tactic seems to be a sure-bet to heat up election day in Wisconsin come this November. (Update for the Curious: Bush won nine of those eleven states, including the quite-important state of Ohio.)
  2. Attack the Opponent's Base: The headlining issue on this front so far is school vouchers. The City of Milwaukee is a key base group for the Democrats. The emotional and deceitful pleas to the black community and the side-stepping of the facts by conservative Milwaukee voices like Charlie Sykes and the grandstanding by politicians like Mark Green and Leah Vukmir yesterday is clearly evidence the goal here is exploitation not resolution. While the tide appears to be turning a bit, conservatives have largely won the message battle on this one up to this point. I have spoken to people who I consider to be fairly attuned to current issues, particularly local ones, and they didn't even know that Doyle and the Democrats are proposing an enrollment cap increase for the voucher program, let alone the fact that this proposal has been on the table since last November. Democrats can try to blame the mainstream media for this misinformation, like Jessica McBride does every time she doesn't get to practically write the story, but the fact remains that Democratic politicians haven't been aggressive enough on this issue. Take Mayor Barrett's very fair proposal from yesterday. If the Democrats picked up on this proposal, one the Republicans rejected off hand, they could transform the debate from one about just helping inner-city poor kids to one about helping those kids and protecting Milwaukee families by championing fair property tax relief. But since Barrett announced his proposal yesterday, the only response from both sides of the aisle has been crickets chirping. And while it's in the best interest of Republicans to ignore reasonable proposals and stall on this issue, that is not the case for Democrats.
  3. Grab the Middle's Attention: This is where the travel contract indictment, the tire-slashing trial, and other alleged Democratic Party improprieties come into play. Even if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Georgia Thompson has direct connections to Doyle, a highly unlikely scenario, the liberal base is still going to pull the lever for the Democrat while the conservative base is going pull the lever for the Republican. That won't change. Who these issues will affect are those people who don't consider themselves close followers of politics, but also feel that trust and openness in government are extremely important. This is key because it means that Republicans don't need to necessarily prove the case against Doyle, all they need to do is muddy the waters by screaming about it. All it needs to be on election day is, "Hey, isn't Doyle the one who ripped off the taxpayers by giving some contract to a company that donated money to him?" It doesn't matter that the connections will probably turn out to be very weak, if they even exist at all, between Thompson and Doyle or that what Thompson did actually saved the taxpayers money. It's about planting a seed of doubt.
Undoubtedly some of these issues will change over the next ten months, but the three-tiered approach will likely stay the same. Indeed, what I laid out here is not news to most people who are reading this blog. You already knew it. But I did this not only to concisely show the Republican strategy, but also to demonstrate the lack of a concise strategy on the part of Democrats thus far.

This post was easy for me to put together. It's probably taken about 10-15 minutes, and the majority of that was just time to type. When I try to think about doing this for the Democrats, I can't even think of where to begin. I can think of a few things the Democrats are doing, but to be quite honest--they're all defensive strategies born out of the Republican offense described above. In part that's because Doyle is the incumbent, but incumbency doesn't mean a clear offensive strategy is unnecessary--particularly in a state isn't at all afraid to elect a Republican governor and keep him in power for over a decade.

Right now Republicans are controlling the debate and subsequently the road to the Governor's Office. It's about time for the Democrats to start playing some offense.

Update: I've added a couple links at 6:40pm. The content is the same.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Rush's Early Favorite in 2008...

George Allen.

Rush says he hopes the Republican nomination doesn't go to McCain. Why? Rush: "I don't think he's conservative, pure and simple."

Andrew Sullivan wonders: "McCain, who's a strong supporter of the war on terror, against the Medicare drug disaster, pro-life, pro-tax cuts, and in favor of amending Arizona's constitution to bar gay couples from legal protections, is not, apparently, a 'conservative.' How far right can the goal-posts go?"

As Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus at Dartmouth and a former speechwriter for Reagan and Nixon, explains here, it may be the current administration that's not conservative.

A Reasonable Proposal: Why Aren't Republicans Listening?

It turns out I wasn't the only person Barrett spoke to yesterday about the school voucher issue (surprise, surprise, huh?).

Barrett officially announced a proposal to raise the enrollment cap on the voucher program while simultaneously providing property tax relief to Milwaukee residents, who currently pay about $1000 more in property taxes to educate a voucher student than they pay to educate an MPS student.

An article in the Journal-Sentinel by Alan Borsuck has the details.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that the state pays about 79% of the cost to educate an MPS student while only covering 55% of the cost of educating a voucher student. Barrett is proposing to take 1/3 of the savings that the state gets from having students attend voucher schools, which comes out to about $1000 per student, and using it to even out the score for Milwaukee taxpayers. The state would still get to keep 2/3 of the savings, or $2000 per voucher student, it gets from the voucher program to put in its coffers.

In other words, Barrett's proposal would make it so that Milwaukee taxpayers pay the same amount for voucher students as they do for MPS students. And as if that wasn't enough, the proposal would only impact voucher students who join the program above the current enrollment level of 14,751 FTE. That means Milwaukee taxpayers would continue to pay more for those students already in the program; they'd only see a savings on additional voucher students who come into the program once the cap is raised.

Despite the fact that Barrett's proposal is cost-neutral for every other school district in the state, Republican leaders reacted negatively to it. According to Borsuk's article, Republican point-person on the voucher issue, State Assembly Speaker John Gard, said that he wasn't interested in Barrett's proposal. Evidently he's too busy making an election year issue out of this with pal Mark Green to take the time to entertain what voucher-proponent Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, called "a new, creative idea for consideration."

The more conservatives reject reasonable proposals, continue to sling baseless mud, and focus on grandstanding ahead of negotiating the more clear it's going to become that this is about a Republican campaign strategy, not helping Milwaukee children and Milwaukee families.

Conservative News Flash: The gravy-train of misinformation on the voucher issue has run its course. Play time is over. It's time now to start getting on with the business of actually creating a bill that helps all Milwaukee students while protecting Milwaukee families.

UPDATE: I just posted a link to the LFB letter to Barrett. You can see it here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mayor Barrett: Vouchers Hurting Milwaukee Taxpayers

I just spoke with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on the phone. According to a letter from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that Mayor Barrett received yesterday, the voucher program is adversely affecting Milwaukee taxpayers.

The Fiscal Bureau letter states that if the voucher program ended and all of the voucher students came flooding back into MPS schools, Milwaukee property taxes would actually decrease. This means that, contrary to what some conservatives have been arguing, money is not simply being diverted equally from MPS to the voucher schools. As it currently exists, the voucher program is costing Milwaukee taxpayers more by forcing them to pay for 45% of the voucher program to go along with the property taxes that already go to pay for MPS schools.

This does not mean that Mayor Barrett thinks the voucher program should end. In fact, Mayor Barrett told me that he's in favor of raising, not lifting completely, the enrollment cap on school vouchers. However, he also emphasized that the cap must be raised in conjunction with property tax relief for Milwaukee residents. The Democrats are proposing this very type of property tax relief for Milwaukee residents in the "Hold Harmless" provision of their Milwaukee Education Package.

Mayor Barrett is sending me a copy of the letter he received from the Fiscal Bureau. I'll post more on the details of its contents when I receive that copy.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: I just posted a link to the LFB letter to Barrett. You can see it here.

Chapter 220: The Other Choice Program

While conservatives are trumpeting themselves as inner-city activists who are truly interested in expanding the educational choices of inner-city black youths, they are in the next breath not at all afraid to call for the restriction or even elimination of another program that gives black inner-city students the choice to receive an education at very successful districts in the suburbs. I am, of course, referring to the Chapter 220 program, which was enacted in the mid-1970s after a long school desegregation battle in Milwaukee.

Chapter 220 allows black students from Milwaukee to attend predominantly white suburban schools and white students from the suburbs to attend predominantly black schools in the city (although 220 has always been, in practice, a one way street out of the city). The voucher program, similarly, allows low-income students from Milwaukee to attend a private school in the area. The intent of Chapter 220 is racial integration while the intent of school vouchers is to afford inner-city youths a private school education; however, the effect of the two programs—giving inner-city youths school choice—is the same.

How, I wonder, can conservatives so fervently support the voucher program while simultaneously attacking the Chapter 220 program, which has the same effect of giving black inner-city youths choice in the school they attend? Some may turn around and ask why Democrats support Chapter 220 while opposing the unbridled expansion of the voucher program, but the answer there is clear: Liberals believe in putting state money and resources into public education ahead of private schools. That’s a consistent liberal belief.

Although conservatives traditionally believe in private, free-market forces and a smaller government, that’s not what the school voucher debate is about. Conservatives are not asking that private schools philanthropically reduce their tuition rates so that inner-city youths can afford them. What they’re doing is proposing the expansion of a government program that will need to be paid for through an increase in taxpayer dollars.

Where’s the ideological consistency? If this is simply about giving educational choices to inner-city youths, why oppose Chapter 220?

Some will probably answer that Chapter 220 costs more than the voucher program. But if this is just about cost, why use deceitful attack ads to disingenuously make it out like the choice debate is about conservatives helping inner-city black youths and Democrats like Doyle standing in the schoolhouse door? Why not propose taking away the property tax relief already wealthy suburban districts get from state equalization aid for having 220 students, thereby bringing its costs down? Why propose, instead, to simply eliminate Chapter 220?

The more conservatives oppose successful choice programs like Chapter 220 and Democratic proposals to expand the voucher program while also providing property tax relief to Milwaukee families, the more it’s going to become obvious that this debate isn’t entirely about helping inner-city youths.

My guess is you won't hear a peep from conservatives about choice or standing in the schoolhouse door the next time Chapter 220 enters the public debate.

It’s ok, though. You can always tell the inner-city youths who benefit from 220 that their choice just costs too much.

Pocan Poll

If you haven't seen it, yet, the "Pocan Poll" over at Mark's blog is a great one. He asks: "What is the GOPs best argument for writing discrimination into the State Constitution?"

Right now "Brings in the $$$" is leading the way with 34% of the vote, but I think "Document too positive" is the sleeper in this race.

Is a Job a Job?

I'm going to get off the topic of school vouchers and get up on top of my economic soapbox for a moment to comment on the national news of the day.

It's all over the major news outlets, so I'm sure you've heard that Ford is planning to close 14 plants and cut 30,000 jobs over the next six years. When combined with the cuts announced by GM in November, that makes for 23 plant closings and 60,000 worker firings between the two companies alone in the coming years.

The auto companies are quick to point out that they're not leaving the US, they're merely heading to the southern part of the country. What's important to note in this, however, is that job quality is not making the trip. The new workers who sign on with these companies can expect much lower pay and much less in benefits, all this while annual inflation makes it so that a dollar can get you less and less each year.

It should come as no surprise that wages are taking a beating these days. After all, it's been happening throughout the course of deindustrialization in this country over the past quarter-century-plus.

Just take a look at Milwaukee's Third Ward. What used to be a thriving industrial center that built middle-class families has been transformed into an upwardly mobile haven that houses the wealthy and their children. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad something was done with the Third Ward. Plus, it's cool down there. It's a happenin' place to be for people and to build for companies. But what's not happenin' down there is the building of a middle class like it used to be.

The same is true of other Midwestern cities. Take the mill district in Minneapolis, where union employees used to work for companies like Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury, collecting good wages with good benefits for their families. Now the big Gold Medal Flour sign that stands along the Mississippi River is attached to a museum--the Mill City Museum, a relic of the past. Now high-priced condos and lofts line the banks of the Mississippi while Hummers line the streets.

Every time the president and others (Governor Doyle included) point to our low unemployment rate, we should be asking ourselves and, ultimately, them: Is a job a job? While the effect of economic policies will never be perfect, the intent of those policies should be to strive for perfection. In my America, perfection is when everyone has their basic needs covered (health care, quality housing, good education, etc.) and where no one prospers at the expense of others (see a report on CEO salaries in comparison to workers here, an editorial on how hard it is to really track the true salaries of CEOs here, and a report here that shows how congressional rules make it easy for those in power to give handouts to big companies while trampling on the needy).

There is no question there are people in this country living the American dream, just look at those condos and Hummers. But is it still achievable, as it once at least seemed to be, for those who do not?

Thanks for letting me do that. It feels good to paint with a broad brush on national issues for a bit. It's sort of like political yoga. I'll have another post up on the school voucher issue later in the day.

Costs of Voucher Schools

Jay over at Folkbum has a great insight into why the costs of voucher schools are so much cheaper than the public schools on a per student basis.

As Jay points out, all of the special needs services (and these go way beyond what would be considered traditional special education, like LD and ED) public schools are required (as they should be) to provide are extrememly expensive in terms of time, space, extra staff, etc. Voucher schools, on the other hand, are not required (pdf file) under state law to provide services that require anything more than "minor adjustments" to the learning atmosphere.

Financially, there is a big difference between all necessary adjustments and only minor adjustments.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Taxation Without Equal Representation?

The story today about taxpayer distress with the rise in property taxes charged by the technical schools has got me thinking. The main complaint of the taxpayers raising a stink about the technical colleges is that the technical college boards are appointed, not elected. Thus, the taxpayers scream, that's taxation without representation!

Over in the school voucher debate, the biggest trouble most conservatives seem to be having with the Democrat's proposal is the part about allowing MPS to recoup the 45% of the voucher program that it covers through deductions in its state aid. With MPS giving up more than $40,000,000 this year alone in the deal, and undoubtedly more in future years as the program expands, the residents of the City of Milwaukee are being made to pay for the voucher program largely through their property taxes, as Mayor Tom Barrett explains in a Journal-Sentinel article here.

But, some conservative voices have now come to argue, why shouldn't Milwaukee residents pay more for the voucher program? After all, only Milwaukee kids can participate. While this is true, it's also true that the voucher program is a state program, not a city program. In order for the voucher program to expand and the city of Milwaukee residents to see their property taxes go up (without the Democratic provision, that is), it takes the passage of a state law, not a city ordinance.

Granted, Milwaukee residents do have some representation in the state senate, the state assembly, and the governor's office. But those houses are also divided amongst the rest of the state, which wouldn't see its property taxes affected at all by the expansion of the voucher program. So, I wonder--using the same logic that has taxpayers up in arms over the technical colleges--isn't the expansion of the voucher program via state law (again, without the Democratic provision) taxation without equal representation for the residents of Milwaukee?

As "Watchdog Milwaukee" points out, a number of Milwaukee residents haven't had a great experience with the voucher program, not to mention all those residents who don't use it or don't plan to use it. I wonder how all those residents would respond to the question: "We're going to expand the voucher program, and you get to pay for 45% of it through state aid that must be made up through your property taxes. Sound good?"

I'm sure some would answer "yes," but I wonder what they'd think if just after they did, they were told that Doyle and the Democrats--who are supposedly blocking the schoolhouse door--actually proposed expanding the voucher program and eliminating the property tax burden on Milwaukee residents. Then who do you think would start to look like George Wallace?

Not As Easy As It Looks

Owen over at "Boots and Sabers" lays out the proposal by Democrats on expanding school vouchers in Milwaukee. He takes particular issue with the "Hold Harmless" provision in the proposal. Current law states that MPS must pay for 45% of the voucher program through deductions in state aid. The provision in the current Democratic proposal would allow MPS to recoup the money it loses in state aid by allowing the district to count 0.45 FTE of those students enrolled in the voucher program when calculating state aid (phased in over five years).

Owen, however, claims that this provision would not only allow MPS to recoup its loses, but that it also would provide MPS a means for making extra money above and beyond what it loses in state aid to the voucher program. To demonstrate, Owen lays out the following simple scenario:


"Let’s do the math. If 10,000 kids go to a choice school, MPS pays 45% of the cost. The cost per kid is about $6,500. So, MPS pays $6,500 x 0.45 x 10,000 = $29,250,000.

Under this bill, 45% of those kids would be counted for enrollment purposes. The state pays MPS about $8,400 per kid in equalization aid. So, under this bill, the state would pay MPS 10,000 x 0.45 x $8,400 = $37,800,000.

As you can see, this bill would give MPS $8,550,000 in additional revenue for kids that it does not have to educate. It’s a ripoff."


Owen's misstatement of how much state aid MPS receives per student aside (the figure was actually $6507.81 per student in 2005-2006, according to what I'll call state record #1 found here...scroll down to page 28 for MPS), the oversimplified example he provides does not even start to explain how the Democratic proposal would actually work in practice.

In reality, the Democratic proposal allows MPS to add 0.45 x the total number of voucher students (in FTE) to their total "Aid Membership" that is then factored into the very complex calculation the state uses for determining state aid to school districts (see details here). In order to get an accurate picture of how much money MPS would ultimately gain out of the Democratic proposal, you would need to start with the new "Membership Aid" figure and work your way through calculating the primary, secondary, and tertiary aid amounts MPS would be entitled to under the new number of students its claiming. It's not as simple as multiplying the number of voucher students by 0.45 and then multiplying that figure by the amount of state aid MPS receives per student because the amount of state aid changes when MPS is allowed to add 45% of the voucher students to its total "Membership Aid."

According to what we'll call state record #2 found here, the total number of voucher students in 2005-2006 is 14,751 FTE. We could take a hypothetical situation that assumes the Democratic proposal passed five years ago and we are now at the point when MPS is able to calculate the full 0.45 FTE from the voucher program into its "Aid Membership." By multiplying 14,751 by 0.45 (and rounding up for simplicity) we find that we could add 6638 FTE to the "Aid Membership" for MPS. The "Aid Membership" before this addition was 96,874 (figure A7 on page 28 of state record #1), thus making the new "Aid Membership" figure 103,512.

Now all we need to do is run the new "Aid Membership" figure of 103,512 through the gauntlet of calculations to get the new state aid amount provided to MPS under the Democratic proposal. I could give this a shot later, but whatever amount I come up with will only be the best a history major can do using the formulas provided next to each line in state record #1. If one of the fixed numbers happens to change, let's say, with the rise in "Aid Membership," my calculations will be off. In other words, without understanding how the calculations process is intended to work in addition to knowing the actual formulas, there is much room for human error. The only people I would truly trust to figure this out are those who do it officially for the state. If we have any who read this blog, please help us out by commenting on this post.

As for the rest of us, our time as political commentators is probably best spent debating the broader intent and potential effects of the Democratic and Republican proposals. Unless you are very confident in your math skills and--like a good math student--can show your work through the state aid calculation gauntlet, let's leave the number crunching to the pros. Oversimplification (e.g., one-line calculations) and speculation (e.g., MPS is making money off the Democratic proposal) on truly complex numbers only leads to misinformation and thereby does a disservice to the public debate on this issue.

UPDATE: I contacted the DPI to get a professional explanation of what the result would be if the Democratic proposal went through. I'll put up another post on the topic if I get a response.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Real Voucher Debate: One Conservative Taker

UPDATE: Peter DiGaudio at "Texas Hold 'Em" had some technical trouble on Sunday and as a result lost most of his original post that I discuss below. He has since re-created the post, and the substance is virtually the same as the original post, but some of my quotes below may not match-up with the new version. I have a copy of the original post that I plan to send to DiGaudio later in the day, so he can have the option to re-post that version.
I want to thank Peter DiGaudio at “Texas Hold ‘Em” for being the first conservative blogger I’ve read to post something that actually focuses on the real debate concerning the expansion of the school voucher program in Milwaukee. The style of DiGaudio’s post should be a model for conservatives like Charlie Sykes and Jessica McBride on this issue.

DiGaudio starts by pointing to a post of mine that lays out the two sides of the voucher debate. At first, he criticizes me for linking to an actual policy proposal by Doyle, while only linking to a Journal-Sentinel article for the Republican proposal. As a matter of fact, I tried to locate a written proposal by Vukmir and Darling on the web but couldn’t find one. I felt vindicated when DiGaudio himself had to contact Vukmir and Darling directly in order to get more complete info on their proposal.

As it turns out, once DiGaudio heard back from Vukmir, the actual Republican proposal is hardly different at all from the proposal I outlined in my post. There were two points I left out since they didn’t appear in the JS article; however, as DiGaudio notes, these are two points the Doyle proposal and the Vukmir/Darling proposal have in common (nevertheless, these have been since added to my post). This led DiGaudio to conclude: “To this point, the In Effect posting is relatively accurate, but not intentionally.”

Although I can’t figure out how my accuracy was unintentional, DiGaudio goes on to list three previous legislative bills that Doyle vetoed in an attempt to point out that Doyle once opposed the very legislation he proposed on November 4, 2005.

The first bill that DiGaudio lists, AB 126 (2003), supposedly deals with academic accountability in the voucher schools. DiGaudio doesn’t, however, go into detail on exactly what the bill entailed. In fact, this is the bill that proposed a privately-funded study by the Legislative Audit Bureau. As I’ve noted before, voucher schools had the option of participating in this study that would have taken place over 12 years, thus making it a bill about optional reviews that simply serve as a front for the type of classroom accountability Doyle and other Democrats are advocating. What Doyle is supporting in his current proposal is mandatory state-run WKCE standardized testing in all voucher schools, which is something very different than a voluntary study.

The second bill mentioned is AB 259 (2003), which DiGaudio asserts would have eliminated prior year eligibility rules for the voucher program. In actuality, along with eliminating prior year eligibility rules, this bill also would have completely eliminated the income eligibility cap in the voucher program and the enrollment cap in the voucher schools. It’s true that Doyle’s current proposal does advocate eliminating prior year eligibility rules, but signing this bill would have also meant eliminating the income eligibility cap and the enrollment cap in the voucher program—both of which Doyle didn’t support then and doesn’t support now. Instead, Doyle is currently advocating for raising the income cap from 175% of the poverty level to 220% of the poverty level and raising the enrollment cap from 15% to 18%.

The third bill DiGaudio lists is AB 3 (2005), which also proposed completely eliminating the enrollment cap on the voucher program. As I just mentioned, Doyle was not for this then nor is he for this now. Instead, Doyle is proposing to increase the enrollment cap from 15% to 18%.

(Note: DiGaudio lists a fourth bill, AB 698/SB 345, which deals with expanding the Racine charter school program--an aspect of Doyle's current voucher expansion proposal--but this bill has not yet made it to the governor's desk nor has it even passed the Senate.)

DiGaudio then goes on to explain how Doyle could never be a supporter of the voucher program in Milwaukee because he has received large contributions from WEAC, the teacher's union. DiGaudio claims that WEAC is content with failure because the government has “essentially a monopoly” on education, thereby allowing teachers the freedom to fail as they please. The voucher program, in DiGaudio’s argument, is therefore a threat to teachers who are fearful of losing that monopoly (evidently state-licensed teachers aren’t hired at private schools).

In actuality, the government does not have a monopoly over education. While it’s true the government has a monopoly over public education, there are hundreds of private schools that exist around the state (not to mention home-schooling) and—as far as I can tell—WEAC has never advocated shutting them down. Simply because most private school tuition is too high for most middle and low income families doesn’t mean that the government has “essentially a monopoly” on schooling. And just because WEAC opposed the school voucher program since its inception over a decade ago does not mean they fear competition or are content with failure; to be sure, there are numerous teachers in extremely successful districts like Whitefish Bay and Homestead who support WEAC and oppose the voucher program despite the highly unlikely scenario vouchers would ever be used or even academically necessary for their students.

DiGaudio then turns his attention to SAGE. He claims that Doyle is “demanding an additional $50 million in funding” for the program. DiGaudio goes on to argue that increased funding isn’t going to make the program any more popular; instead, he asserts, the program should be made more flexible in its requirements. Perhaps flexibility in the program is a worthwhile agenda, but Doyle is actually not making any demands to increase the general funding for the program to make it more popular.

Doyle’s proposal is to increase the funding per participating student from $2000 to $2500 starting in the 2007-2008 school year. Hence, the funding increase, which isn’t even happening within the current budget, is not aimed at making the program more popular, but rather the goal is to make it more useful by providing more money to districts that already have chosen to implement the program. And to suggest SAGE or other educational programs shouldn’t be considered along with the school voucher program, which DiGaudio does, is to suggest that the voucher program exists in a vacuum that has no impact on nearly 85,000 MPS students who are not currently a part of it. To make that assumption is to engage in short-sighted policymaking.

Lastly, DiGaudio claims that Doyle’s proposal to gradually over five years allow MPS to count 45% of each voucher student when calculating state aid is a “WEAC demand.” Actually this part of the proposal is the idea of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. It’s meant as a way to assist Milwaukee city residents who otherwise are carrying an extra financial burden with the voucher program due to the way state aid is calculated for school districts and the impact of that calculation on property taxes. While someone is certainly free to take issue with this, WEAC is not to blame.

Once again, I applaud DiGaudio for being the first conservative blogger I’ve read to get into the real debate. This is exactly the type of public debate we should be having on the cheddarsphere, on talk radio, and on television programs like “Milwaukee Insight” concerning the very important school voucher issue.

Milwaukee Insight or Milwaukee Deceit?

On the "Milwaukee Insight" program this morning the first order of business was the school voucher debate. Accompanying host Charlie Sykes were panelists Mark Reardon, Mikel Holt, Jessica McBride, and Jeff Wagner. Notably, there wasn't a single voice from the Democratic side on this issue. Sykes in his blog and attack ad production, Reardon on his blog, Holt in his attack ad production, McBride on her blog, and Wagner on his blog have all consistently ignored the proposal--in varying degrees of deceit--made by Doyle to expand the voucher program in Milwaukee.

The conversation amounted to each one repeating the deceit they published in their blogs over the past couple weeks, while Holt added that Doyle is "feeling the political pressure" of this issue--namely from attack ads--and thus just choosing to come to the negotiating table now. While fiction can be fun, the reality is that Doyle made his proposal to expand the voucher program on November 4, 2005. That's right, Doyle's willingness to negotiate started over two months ago, long before any deceitful attack ads ran.

I'm not surprised that Sykes and the panelists on the program this morning presented the cases that they did. I mean, they've been deceitful on this issue for the past two weeks, why stop when they get on television? What is really troubling, however, is that the Journal Broadcast Group, which produces the "Milwaukee Insight" program, found it completely acceptable to give five people on the same side of this issue sole access to air time. Is this really doing a service to the public discussion on this issue?

If others feel as I do about this situation, I encourage them to contact the Journal Broadcast Group and express their feelings (414-332-9611, The school voucher debate is too important of an issue to be presented in a one-sided (and ultimately deceitful) manner.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Doyle Willing to Negotiate on Vouchers: Are Republicans?

UPDATE: Here's the link to Borsuk's full article on this topic from Saturday's Journal-Sentinel. It has slightly more information than the link provided below.


Alan Borsuk at the Journal-Sentinel reports today that Governor Doyle is making significant overtures to the Republican leadership in an attempt to strike a deal on the expansion of the school voucher program in Milwaukee.

In statements made today, Doyle emphasized the administrative accountability part of his proposal that would require voucher schools become accredited by select accrediting authorities by the 2007-2008 school year. Subsequently, it appears that Doyle is de-emphasizing the parts of his proposal that focus on classroom accountability--i.e., implementing WKCE standardized testing in all voucher schools.

Apparently there are meetings planned between Doyle and leading Republicans to get on with negotiations. I would applaud Doyle if he really is backing off on the implementation of standardized testing in the voucher schools. As I've mentioned a couple times before, I think large-scale, high-stakes, state-run standardized testing is detrimental to the teaching and learning that is supposed to take place in any classroom, public or private (you can read more detailed explanations of my reasoning here and here).

Of course, the corollary to keeping large-scale, high-stakes, state-run standardized tests out of voucher schools is getting them out of public schools. My hope in advocating for their omission from the voucher schools is that, down the road, the success of voucher students in the private schools becomes tied in part to the fact that their instruction isn't dominated by mandatory, state-run exams. Granted, the passage of No Child Left Behind makes standardized testing a national issue, not simply a state one, since that law ties much-needed federal funding to the use of and success on standardized tests.

However, the more public opinion can be influenced on the issue of accountability to see how detrimental standardized testing is to the freedom of the learning process in the classroom, the closer we can come to repealing No Child Left Behind. It's a long, tough process, and it can use all the help it can get.

The Choice to Collectively Bargain: Why is that Bad?

In a recent post on his blog, Brian Fraley takes issue with a bill (pdf file) proposed by Republican State Senator Dale Schultz, the majority leader, to "allow UW faculty to unionize." What Fraley does not explain well is why he opposes this legislation. In his words:

"Unionized UW faculty? This is a warmed over Democrat proposal, variations of which have been introduced by former senators Cal Potter and Rick Grobschmidt (both who now are entrenched in the DPI bureaucracy). Well, a unionized educational bureaucracy has done so much to help K-12 public education in Wisconsin, why not try it in the UW System, right?"

Aside from pointing out that Democrats tried to pass similar legislation in the past and inferring that unions have supposedly hurt K-12 education in Wisconsin, Fraley presents no direct evidence for why he opposes Schultz's proposal. (Side Note: All classified employees in the UW system--who make up one-quarter to one-third of the employees on most campuses--are already unionized with other state civil service employees under AFSCME Council 24.)

The bill proposed by Schultz would actually give faculty and academic staff in the UW system the choice to unionize--which amounts to the right to collectively bargain on salary and other conditions of employment. This is an important distinction because there are just as many, if not more, academic staff in the UW system as faculty. Academic staff are made up of professionals in teaching positions such as lecturers or clinical instructors and non-teaching positions such as academic advisors or student services coordinators.

Additionally, the legislation does not require faculty and academic staff to collectively bargain; it just gives them the option to do so. Twenty states--including Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan--already allow their state university staff and faculty the option to collectively bargain. Why shouldn't Wisconsin give academic staff and faculty that same choice?

Disclaimer: I am an academic staff member in the UW system. Just thought I should mention that before some enterprising blogger finds it out (it's not too tough to uncover) and calls my view biased. Along with that, I should note that I'm not proposing collective bargaining in the post above, but rather I'm supporting the right to collective bargaining. If Schultz's proposal becomes law, I'll turn my attention to the pros and cons of actually unionizing in my line of work.

One Decade and 26 Million Taxpayer Dollars Later...

And they got nothin'. The longest independent-counsel investigation in US History (yes, even longer than any of Kenny Starr's numerous investigations) concluded yesterday just as it began: with allegations.

These allegations started when the ex-mistress of Henry Cisneros, a former secretary of housing and urban development under Bill Clinton, accused him of lying to the FBI about money he gave her in 1995. This accusation led to further investigations into Cisneros' payment of income taxes. In all, 18 felony charges were brought against Cisneros. He ended up pleading guilty in 1999 to a misdemeanor charge of making false statements. David Barrett, the independent counsel on the case, continued his investigations for six more years in an attempt to nail Cisneros on some of the bigger felony charges.

Barrett finally released the long awaited report on this 10-year investigation yesterday. An article in the Washington Post explains:

"In a 474-page report, independent counsel David M. Barrett conceded that he was 'not able to say with certainty whether any criminal laws were broken' by government officials in his inquiry of possible tax violations by Cisneros. But he alleged that officials in the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service 'resisted our efforts to investigate' the possibilities. The report itself does not appear to include clear evidence of obstruction, however."

The right tried desperately to keep this issue alive in recent years. Congressional Republicans even went so far as to overrule a three-judge panel that recommended removing any mention of the Clinton administration from the public report. The hope of some Republicans was that Hillary Clinton, who is poised to make a run for the presidency in 2008, was in some way implicated in this matter. At least, they thought, they'd be able to get something on Bill. (After all, simply nailing Henry Cisneros doesn't exactly make good fodder for the Swift Boat Veterans.)

As it turns out, neither Hillary nor Bill were implicated at all in the nearly 500-page report. Despite being a hot topic in Republican circles in recent years, the Post reported that crickets could be heard chirping on Capital Hill after the release of Barrett's final report yesterday.

"Chirp, chirp," said the crickets, confirming the silence. (I'm told that's a direct quote.)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

School Vouchers: The Real Debate

As promised in my previous post, here are the positions of the two sides on the school voucher debate:

Doyle Proposal

  • Increase school voucher cap from 15% to 18%
  • Eliminate all prior-year eligibility rules, thereby allowing children to participate in the voucher program regardless of where they attended school the previous year
  • Increase the income eligibility cap for families who want to participate in the voucher program from 175% to 220% of the federal poverty level
  • Allow MPS to count each voucher student at a rate of 45%, phased in over five years, when calculating state aid; all of the funds that come from this must be used by MPS for instruction
  • Starting in the 2007-2008 school year, increase SAGE funding from $2000 per participating student to $2500 per participating student
  • Increase the enrollment cap on the Racine Charter School from 400 to 480
  • Implement mandatory WKCE standardized testing in grades 3-8 and 10 of all schools participating in the voucher program
  • Starting in the 2007-2008 school year, make it mandatory for all voucher program schools to be accredited by one of a number of specified independent accrediting authorities

Republican Proposal (Vukmir & Darling)

  • Remove all enrollment caps on the school voucher program
  • Undertake a privately-funded study of the school voucher program in Milwaukee led by researchers from Georgetown University
  • Make standardized testing voluntary for voucher schools, but make it mandatory they release the test scores if they do implement the testing
  • Eliminate all prior-year eligibility rules, thereby allowing children to participate in the voucher program regardless of where they attended school the previous year
  • Increase the income eligibility cap for families who want to participate in the voucher program

There they are—the two positions as they stand now. It’s time to keep the public discussion on the merits of these points moving forward.

UPDATE: On January 22, 2005, I added the last two points to the Republican proposal based upon a post by Peter DiGaudio at "Texas Hold 'Em." For more explanation, see here.

The Good, the Bad, and the Deceitful

Let’s start with the good. Charlie Sykes—in response to the Democrats calls for more school choice accountability—pointed out Wisconsin Act 155 (pdf file), which was passed in 2004 to give the state superintendent more authority in reprimanding poorly run voucher schools in Milwaukee. There was some controversy surrounding the passage of that act, as Democrats were largely left out of its creation, but overall the act was praised by liberals. At the time, State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster called it a good “first step” toward accountability in the voucher schools.

What Burmaster meant by “first step” is that the legislation deals solely with administrative accountability: ensuring sound fiscal practices, ensuring proper health and safety conditions, ensuring good attendance rates, etc. What Act 155 does not touch is classroom accountability (i.e., standardized tests), which is what Doyle and other Democrats are calling for now, among other proposals to accompany raising the cap on school voucher enrollment.

This leads us into the bad. Sykes attempts to cover up the fact that large-scale, state-run classroom accountability does not exist in the voucher schools by pointing out independent studies that were either small in scope or riddled with loopholes. Let’s take as an example the study that was to be undertaken by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau. This study was part of a large legislative package that would have, among other things, eliminated enrollment caps completely on the voucher program. The study, vetoed by Doyle along with the rest of the legislation, had two big flaws: it allowed for voucher schools to opt out of the study if they didn’t want to participate and it required private funding for its completion over the course of twelve years.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a supporter of standardized tests in schools, in particular when those standardized tests are tied to funding and teacher pay. If Sykes’ slighting of large-scale, state-run classroom accountability measures (i.e., high-stakes standardized tests) in voucher schools is an indication that he opposes such measures in schools, then I’m with him all the way. If he doesn’t oppose measures that tie funding—or in this case voucher eligibility—to standardized test scores, then he should be honest that such measures don’t exist within the current voucher program. Either way, I’d like to hear more from Sykes about exactly where he stands on the real issue here: state-run, large-scale classroom accountability measures.

And finally, onward to the deceitful. For this we turn our attention to Jessica McBride, who in a recent blog post adds very little (just a bit at the end) to the discussion. Instead, she claims that “Democratic spinners” like me and Xoff are misreading the school voucher debate as something that’s “purely partisan.” By linking to my post from yesterday, I assumed she read it, but yet she doesn’t mention or analyze anything I actually wrote. McBride admits that “there is a partisan element on both sides in the growing debate about raising the school choice caps,” but then she goes on to suggest that by calling out Charlie Sykes on his use of valuable air and blog time to make erroneous attack ads rather than focus on the debate at hand we somehow made the issue purely partisan and in the process (get ready for the logic leap) attacked Sykes for “giving voice to the black community.”

McBride goes on to tell the story of a young black teenager named Sam who she mentored and his grandmother Ruby. McBride explains that Ruby is sending Sam's brothers to choice schools. "For people like Ruby," McBride writes, "partisanship is not even part of the discussion. This is a matter of life and death. These kids are terribly at risk; in the case of one of them, his father murdered his mother. But the choice school is working for them both. People like Ruby probably wonder, why can't the governor just get this done? Why is this so difficult? It's not like there already aren't accountability standards in place. They don't care that it's a conservative talk radio host who's standing up for them. They are just glad someone is."

The leap from domestic murder to school choice aside, the issue here is how to go about expanding the voucher program, not whether or not to expand it at all. The hope of Democrats is that we'll be able to simultaneously furtherg the viability of other proven programs--such as SAGE--that serve the MPS students who remain in the public schools (and, presumably, around the dangers of domestic violence). Making it seem like Doyle is threatening the livelihood of Sam's brothers and "Democratic spinners" like me are aiding in this threat is rhetorical deceit at its worst.

The end of McBride’s post does get slightly more informative on the issue, although she relies completely an anonymous “Republican legislative insider” who simply blames the whole situation on Doyle. I appreciate the way she quotes the Republican legislative insider on some numbers, but it makes it difficult to continue the discussion when these figures are not tied to any actual evidence, thus keeping her readers from analyzing this insider info. And what’s more, not once does this insider’s account acknowledge that Doyle is in support of raising the voucher enrollment cap; after all, that would contradict the deceitful portion of McBride’s post.

I’m making a promise to myself that is will be the last post I make trying to redirect people to the real debate. From now on, all discussion on the issue of school vouchers will be focused on how to go about judiciously expanding the program while protecting other programs. It’s not an easy task, which is why it deserves our undivided attention.

In a follow-up post I'll put up shortly--since this one has already become quite long--I’ll lay out as clearly as possible the two positions on school choice as they currently exist. I’m hoping this will serve as a bedrock for the discussion (at least on this blog) moving forward.

Note: This post was edited for clarity at 3:50pm. The substance is the same.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

That Pesky Government Accountability Office!

Over at "The Plank," Jonathan Cohn notes a GAO report from December 2005 that warned the Bush administration wasn't exactly ready for the implementation of Medicare Part D on Jan. 1 of this year. You can get the full report here (pdf format). And Matthew Holt over at "The Health Care Blog" provides some good analysis of the report, as well.

The White House is trying to talk over the problems (i.e., public health crises) surrounding the implementation of their signature domestic achievement of 2005 by touting how many people are actually enrolled in the new program. As The Hill reports, about 24 million people are currently enrolled in the program; however, the article goes on to note that "nearly all [85%] of them are enrolled in parts of the program that do not require them to sign up." Not surprisingly, it's those automatically-enrolled people who are facing the most difficulty getting their prescription drugs for the month of January. Quite an achievement.

Charlie Sykes: Attack Ad Extraordinaire

Rather than just sit back and publicize erroneous and misleading attack ads against Jim Doyle, Charlie Sykes has gotten in the business of making those very ads. After all, no one can sling mud quite like Sykes.

Here's the text of the ad Sykes helped to produce:

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: Fifty years ago the Supreme Court opened the school house doors. But the fight hasn’t been easy. And the fight isn’t over.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: In 1957 a governor named Orval Faubus stood in the school house door in Little Rock Arkansas to keep nine African American students from getting an education.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: In 1963 a governor named George Wallace stood in the door of the University of Alabama to keep two African American students from going to school.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: Now, in 2006, don’t let a governor named Jim Doyle stand in the schoolhouse door again. This time, blocking hundreds of African American students right here in Milwaukee.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: Students who just want a chance.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: A chance to go to the school of their choice.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDENT: If Governor Doyle doesn’t lift the cap on school choice, he’ll be standing in schoolhouse door, just as surely as Governor Faubus and Governor Wallace.

Governor Doyle. Let Our People Go.

Governor Doyle: Let Our Children IN.

Governor Doyle. Let Our Children Learn.


The misleading use of history aside (those previous schoolhouse doors were all public), Doyle and the Democrats are not trying to end school vouchers in Milwaukee. They're not even trying to keep school vouchers from growing. All Doyle and the Democrats are doing is trying to find a way to expand the school voucher program while ensuring other important educational initiatives in Milwaukee are protected. Sykes can argue about the importance of those other educational initiatives and how much we should do, if anything, to ensure their viability. There would be no problem with that. In fact, I would encourage him to do so. Why? Because that's the real debate!

While the real debate moves on over how to go about expanding school choice in Milwaukee, Charlie Sykes is keeping himself behind where he can be free to sling mud for anyone who will listen. This is unfortunate because Sykes could be providing a strong conservative voice in the real debate that is about truly furthering the educational prosperity of all MPS students--not just those who receive school vouchers, but everyone. Instead, he is choosing to use his valuable air and blog time to put on theatrical ploys that miss the point at best and distract others from the point at worst.