Thursday, January 19, 2006

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.

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