Monday, January 16, 2006

Selective Hearing on School Choice

The theme of day amongst numerous conservative Milwaukee bloggers (Deb Jordahl, Brian Christianson, Jessica McBride, Charlie Sykes, among others) and even the Wall Street Journal is how Jim Doyle is killing school choice in Milwaukee and thereby kicking thousands of kids and their families right in the shins. Similarly, a highly publicized attack ad launched by the Alliance for Choices in Education uses young girls who claim that Doyle is jeopardizing their futures by not completely lifing the cap on school choice enrollment.

In the midst of their attacks, these voices virtually ignore what was made plainly clear in a Journal-Sentinel article from today: Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that something needs to be done about the current school choice enrollment cap, the debate is just over what the solution will look like. Democrats are proposing a 3% increase in the enrollment cap while Republicans are proposing lifting the cap altogether.

Jordahl glosses over this point by writing that Doyle's plan to raise the enrollment cap on the school choice program by 3% is a "meaningless gesture," while the WSJ side-steps the point by writing that three years ago Doyle didn't support any raising of the cap. The television ad--like Christianson, McBride, and Sykes--doesn't mention the proposed 3% cap increase at all.

Let's do the math. There are approximately 98,300 students in the Milwaukee Public School District. The current cap on the school choice program is 15%, which puts the number of MPS students allowed to participate in the program during the 2005-2006 school year at 14,745. By lifing the cap to 18%, assuming the total student enrollment in MPS will stay relatively steady at 98,500, the total number of students allowed in the school choice program would be 17,730--that's nearly 3,000 more students in '06-'07 than in the current school year. According to Wisconsin DPI figures, the number of students enrolled in the Milwaukee school choice program only increased by 2,046 students in the past two years combined.

It's clear that Doyle's proposed 3% cap increase will more than cover the increased school choice enrollment this coming no one is throwing anyone's dream away, like the ad by Alliance for Choices in Education asserts. But conservatives are mad about the 3% proposal because they would rather see the cap lifted altogether. Why is lifting the cap altogether a bad idea? As a series of Journal-Sentinel reports from June 2005 identified, there's very little we know as a public about voucher schools.

As I noted before in this blog, I'm against the micromanagement of the classroom by the state--which is why I oppose Doyle's proposal to force voucher schools to take standardized tests and publicly report the results. However, as the JS report showed, there are some voucher schools that don't even provide proper lighting or books for students. In its review of the Academy of Excellence Preparatory School the report noted the following: "The first two times reporters visited, no one was there. The third time, there was a teacher with two students, a 4-year-old and 5-year-old. They were about to go to McDonald's."

This is clearly unacceptable. To be sure, there are a number of voucher schools that do very well, which is why we should continue the program. But unrestricted access would cause numerous problems that go far beyond teachers bringing 4 and 5-year old students to McDonald's. There are already 120 voucher schools; the bureaucratic mess of tracking the new ones that would surely pop-up if the cap was removed altogether would be alone a daunting task.

It's unfortunate that the conservative media, in Milwaukee and nationally, wants to make the debate about a purely emotional issue (i.e., kids getting kicked out of their choice school and having their futures taken away) that frankly doesn't exist. The real debate is about how to move the choice program forward and simultaneously bring the public schools closer to the academic freedom that exists within the better of the voucher schools. Can we get on with it already?


Blogger PaulNoonan said...

If only 2000 more students or so would sign up for voucher schools anyway, even with no caps, that hardly seems like a potential bureaucratic nightmare.

You argument seems to suggest that because there are a few bad voucher schools we should put an arbitrary cap on the number of total voucher schools.

It makes as much sense to limit the total number of public schools to 18% of their current size, as it does to limit voucher schools in this manner.

January 16, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Incrementally increasing the enrollment cap year to year helps to control the bureaucratic pressures on the district. In all likelihood if the cap was lifted completely, the first year or two would be handled without issue; but three, four, five years down the road that probably would not be the case. Rather than lifting the cap completely only to reimplement it when problems arise, it seems more reasonable to gradually increase the cap year to year as is necessary and possible.

The fact that there are bad voucher schools that until the JS report flew under the public radar makes a cap necessary and warranted, not arbitrary, as we work out the kinks of instituting a major educational reform in a district with nearly 100,000 students. Additionally, out of the 115 voucher schools that existed at the time of the JS report in June 2005, 18% either showed "alarming deficiencies" (10%) or refused to allow the JS to even visit (8%). That's hardly a few.

I agree with your point that we should reduce the current size of the public schools. Even more specifically we should work toward smaller class sizes which have proven to be successful. This is what the SAGE program does in Wisconsin, and that's why Doyle is trying to make sure SAGE is protected finacially in the midst of the voucher expansion. The choice program should grow in Milwaukee, but not at the expense of other proven programs like SAGE.

January 16, 2006  

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