School Vouchers Are No Silver Bullet

September 26, 2008 | Blog

Here is a compelling article by the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess about school choice in light of Milwaukee’s experience with vouchers over the last two decades. His analysis is not as rosy as you might initially expect from a center/right researcher. But he does continue to see the potential in market-based reforms as long as they are envisioned more expansively and are accompanied with a focus on program growth, provider quality, professionalism, innovation, and accountability.

Many of Hess’s proposed elements are exactly the kinds of reform that the Milwaukee voucher community fought tooth and nail over the years — a fight led by politicized organizations such as School Choice Wisconsin, the Alliance for School Choice, and Advocates for School Choice. All of these organizations are interconnected and are bankrolled by national right-wing foundations, including Milwaukee’s own Bradley Foundation. These groups have seemed to care little about the quality of education provided to Milwaukee’s largely low-income and minority students — but have willingly used these kids as political props at pro-voucher rallies during the school day — and have made their sole focus the preservation of an unregulated and unfettered school voucher system in the city of Milwaukee. That changed a little bit a few years ago when media stories about graft, incompetence, and the utter absence of teaching and learning emerged at a number of Milwaukee voucher schools.

As education policy advisor to Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle from 2004 to 2006, I was involved in some of these skirmishes with the voucher leadership. Doyle was always clearly on the side of public education and generally steered a wise course through choppy political waters on this issue. However, I continue to believe that a 2006 compromise [2005 Wisconsin Act 125 summary] that injected some of the first ever accountability and quality control into Milwaukee’s voucher program still gave away too much. As examples, I’d offer up the evaluation currently being conducted by the privately-funded, voucher-friendly School Choice Demonstration Project, the trouble that state officials are having in getting data from that entity, and the lack of a requirement that voucher schools (funded with more than $100 million in state monies) administer a standardized assessment that would provide parents, policymakers and researchers with comparable student achievement data.

Hopefully, moving forward, all involved will take some of Hess’s recommendations under advisement. For now, the Milwaukee voucher program lives on in its current form.

Here are a few excerpts from Hess’s article:

Nearly two decades have passed since the enactment of the landmark Milwaukee Parental Choice Program by the Wisconsin legislature. The program and its many supporters had hoped this experiment in school choice would lead the way in transforming American schools. But it is by now clear that aggressive reforms to bring market principles to American education have failed to live up to their billing.

Today, the Milwaukee voucher program enrolls nearly 20,000 students in more than 100 schools, yet this growing marketplace has yielded little innovation or excellence. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently described 10 percent of voucher schools as having “alarming deficiencies.” These include Alex’s Academics of Excellence, which was launched by a convicted rapist, and the Mandella School of Science and Math, whose director overreported its voucher enrollment and used the funds to purchase two Mercedes. Veteran Journal Sentinel writer Alan Borsuk has opined, “[Milwaukee Parental Choice Program] has preserved the status quo in terms of schooling options in the city more than it has offered a range of new, innovative, or distinctive schools.”

We should have no difficulty conceding Milwaukee’s disappointing record while remaining coolly confident that sensible K–12 market reforms have the potential to boost productivity, spur purposive innovation, provide more nuanced accountability, and make the sector a magnet for talent. Failures to dates should not be read as indictments of market reform but of the notion that “parental choice” programs represent a coherent approach to improving our schools. Reaching that goal will require approaching educational deregulation with an agenda much broader than simply increasing parental choice.

The lessons are increasingly clear. If school choice is to enjoy a brighter future than wave upon wave of supposed school reforms past, it is time for reformers to fight not just for choice but for good choices.

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