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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

McIlheran Watch: "Deal"ing from the bottom of the barrel

Unsurprisingly, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's resident alien--as in, I don't know what color the skies are on the planet he's from--is opining on last week's voucher-school cap deal. What is surprising is that he's opted not to use his tired formula of (1) bad joke, (2) lie or misrepresentation, and (3) Republican talking point. He left out (1). Watch:
The choice program started with all its burden borne by Milwaukee taxpayers. When the Legislature eased that, teachers unions told Wisconsin voters their Republican representatives were robbing them on behalf of undeserving Milwaukee. [(2)] Rep. Debi Towns, a Janesville Republican who heads the education committee, says she faced such advertising just last year, and Gard says he can't ask his caucus to be kicked again. [(3)]
(2) In 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, the MPCP actually did cost all districts in the state, an idea dropped like the proverbial hot potato at the end of a biennium that saw $44.5 million in aid originally aimed at other districts redirected to Milwaukee's voucher schools. Today, the program's state costs are paid by two things: A chargeback of 45% of the cost (this year $42 million-ish) from MPS's equalization aid and an amount equivalent to 55% of the cost (this year, $44 million-ish) from the General Fund. No state school district loses money for this program except the Milwaukee Public Schools. (3) Gard is not willing to ask "his caucus" to take a hit, but is willing to let Milwaukee taxpayers suffer? And, again, his caucus would not take a hit, anyway.
[E]ven if 45% seems like a large share of the bill to Milwaukeeans, "we have districts across the state where local tax effort pretty much carries the ball." [(2)] The average district's figure is 41%, and it's between 80% and 90% in much of suburban Milwaukee. While Milwaukee's share is set by state formula and its poverty, its light load limits others' sympathy. Besides, that 45% buys Milwaukeeans a uniquely beneficial reform. [(3)]
(2) The state's equalization aid formula is a complicated set of rules that all add up to one simple idea: DPI does not try to create equal per-student spending per district, but they do try to ensure that individual taxpayers' burdens are roughly equitable. Small districts with high property values get less (or none); large districts with low property values get more. A district whose property-tax collections cover 90% of the cost of educating a student should be counting its blessings, not envying Milwaukee's "light load." (3) To suggest that Milwaukeeans ought to be happy to shell out $15 million this year (over $22 million if the cap is miraculously hit again next year) for students our public schools do not teach is a pretty cheap shot--and there is no evidence that the "reform" is worth that. At least, no one seems to be asking Milwaukee property tax payers (like me) if it is.
Without mandated tests, say critics, you can't tell [how valuable the reform is]. The deal would require some kind of standardized test. The issue was a ruse anyhow, since most choice schools already test. Want to know how a school's doing? Ask it to show results before sending your kid. [(2) (3)]
(2) The number of schools offering tests is decreasing, and the number who make their results public is pretty slim. The Public Policy Forum has noted for years in its annual reports that the results don't get into the hands of current or perspective parents. (3) Why should parents have to demand from voucher schools what MPS gives them automatically?
If you're only sending money via taxes, then ask: Has knowing test results done you any good at MPS? On state tests, only 25% to 40% of its 10th-graders show more than a rudimentary grasp of most subjects, and the trend is wavering, not rising. Such results are aggregates. [(2)] Education's true results are on a child-by-child basis. The old arguments about funding and why Johnny can't read are macroeconomics, but the tragedy of the real Johnny who can't read is on the micro level. [(3)]
(2) MPS test scores are indeed rising, as the graph at the right shows. Those are generally steady trendlines. I'm not defending the scores--I know they're low--but pointing out the lie. In addition, as McIlheran derides "aggregates," he fails to note that the Republican-desired "study" of the voucher program will produce little more than an "aggregate" result, too. (3) As I have noted before, I could go anecdote-for-anecdote against him. My fellow teacher Diane Hardy started to a little while back. Look, the plural of anecdote is not data. McIlheran has to resort to an anecdote--one about a child who seems to have spent all of five months in school, total, public and private--because there are no data, no reputable studies that show that this program is worth the extra money it costs me and everyone else in the city. There are no data to tell a parent whether the voucher school in her neighborhood is better than the public school.

McIlheran is so excited that the "market" for voucher students seems to be expanding, but not interested in making sure that the market is free, open, and transparent. But, given his propensity for dissembling and obfuscating, it shouldn't shock me that he likes it as it is.

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