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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Vouchers: A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

I don't expect everyone to follow the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program as closely as I do. There are people who know more than I, of course (some of whom comment here occasionally), and I freely acknowledge that. But I try never to sound insane (much) (anymore). Bloggers who don't know what they're talking about, and who do sound insane, bother me, but I find it's par for the course. When people who don't know what they're talking about have a national forum, though, that's just unacceptable.

As an example of the former, consider the blogger Cantankerous at Ask Me Later. She apparently didn't like my assertion of a few weeks back that the so-called Jim Doyle "blink" was as phony as the cap "crisis." She calls my post a joke. Her disagreement with me in and of itself is not the insanity, but rather the bizarre stuff she starts making up during the conversation below in the comments (crazy stuff in bold for easy reference):
Pardon me but you keep referring to the accountability measures in the just reached compromise as the same accountability measures previously offered by Governor Doyle. This is complete Hog Wash (I love that phrase).

The accountability measures championed by Governor Doyle and his handlers in the Teacher's Unions in the past demanded that choice schools be accredited by MPS AND adhere to the same teaching standards adopted by MPS. So much for CHOICE!!!

The new accountability measures are not only palatable but what many TRUE choice advocates had long championed. The main difference is MPS doesn't do the curriculum accrediation, instead respected educational organizations like Howard Fuller's Institute for the Transformation of Learning review the schools teaching methods and decide if they should gain choice status. [. . .]

The only time Doyle said he would consider lifting the cap was if any choice student that left an MPS school also counted on the MPS roles...basically double-dipping the taxpayers to the tune of $18,000 per choice student.
I respond there (mostly by referring to my previous posts on accountability and funding), so I won't take the time to re-refute the insanity here, but this comment fits in perfectly with the thesis I advanced in the "blink" post: Cantankerous has convinced herself of some utter nonsense about Doyle's past offers to raise the cap (perhaps confusing MPS's role as a chartering agency in the mess) and so sees a much bigger move on Doyle's part to make the compromise happen. The crazy nonsense isn't even fully apparent until enough layers get pulled back in the comments section; that's how deeply some on the right have internalized an entire series of lies about the issue.

But Cantankerous is an amateur (as am I--that's not a value judgment). John Tierney is not. At least, he gets paid to write his insane ravings. Last week his New York Times column was about the Milwaukee voucher doings. It was hidden behind the NYT Select subscription wall, of course, but I got a glimpse of it through this post at Steve Benen's Carpetbagger Report (someone in the comments there was kind enough to link to me as doing a "good job" on the voucher issue--thanks, Dave, whoever you are!). It's worth noting Benen's response to Tierney, which is what I saw before I saw the Tierney itself:
First, describing Milwaukee's voucher program as "successful" is more than a little dubious. [ A rehashing of recent voucher school scandals and links to the Journal Sentinel series on vouchers omitted because you know all this already, loyal readers.]

Secondly, Tierney insists that African-American families love vouchers so much, they will inevitably turn on the Democratic Party. As proof, Tierney points to … nothing in particular. [. . .] Where is the overwhelming demand that Tierney sees in the African-American community? It doesn't appear to exist. Indeed, the nation's largest civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, all strongly oppose vouchers. [. . .] While all voters in California rejected the voucher plan by a 2-to-1 margin, an exit poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times showed that black voters opposed the plan by an even bigger margin--68% to 32%.

In Michigan, all voters opposed a similar statewide plan by a margin of 69% to 31%. According to an exit poll by the Detroit News, blacks statewide rejected the proposal by an even wider margin, voting it down 4 to 1. In the city of Detroit, voters rejected the scheme 72% to 28%.
Lucky for me, Tierney's op-ed escaped the NYT Select wall and landed on my front porch Sunday, since the pro-voucher editorial board down to the newspaper never misses a chance to run a pro-voucher op-ed. (To be fair, Sunday's op-eds did include a pro-public school--though carefully not anti-voucher--piece by MPS's superintendent.) The column was not worth the wait, and was, in many ways, a warming over of arguments covered a month ago by John Fund in the Wall Street Journal. It is full of inaccuracies and distortions like these:
Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, looks like public enemy No. 1 for African-American schoolchildren. [As opposed to, say, asthma? violence? poverty? patronizing newspaper columnists?]

So the state announced a rationing plan on Monday that would deny vouchers next year to thousands of students, many of them already using vouchers to attend private schools. [. . .] The governor and the Republicans have negotiated a last-minute deal--expected to be enacted shortly--to stave off the rationing plan by allotting extra vouchers. That would spare the Democrats from the immediate prospect of kicking black children out of private schools. [Remind me again: Who wanted to kick kids out of private schools?]

How long will blacks vote for a party that opposes the voucher programs they strongly favor? And how can Democratic leaders keep preaching their devotion to public schools while sending their own children to private schools, as Doyle did? He's what I call a LYPSY, an acronym for Let Your People Stay.
See what I mean about insane? Tierney is another one of those--like Milwaukee's own Charlie Sykes, for example--white guys who feels the need to tell blacks what to think; not even in my insanest days to I go that far. Howard Fuller, an actual African American, provides the voice of reason and moderation in Tierney's column: "Howard Fuller, a prominent advocate for vouchers as well as a former superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools, told me he hadn't seen the popularity of the voucher program translate into much affection for Republicans among his fellow African-Americans, especially his civil rights comrades."

As white as Tierney may be, he is in the New York Times, after all, and a lot of people read that paper, including some African Americans, like Star Parker, a conservative Christian activist who occasionally writes for the right-wing She uses Tierney's op-ed as a springboard for her own column:
I was aghast to read Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle's response to a question from The New York Times columnist John Tierney, "How long will blacks vote for a party that opposes the voucher programs they strongly favor?" Doyle's response: "I don't think this is an issue that moves voters." [. . .]

I think hope for the future of America's black community hinges on education and whether we can succeed in getting school choice implemented nationally. [. . .] I suggest that no black American cast a vote for any candidate of either party that does not support school choice.
That's the opening and closing of her column; in between, Parker cites a lot of gruesome statistics about endemic poverty and the correlations among poverty, employment, and education. But rather than suggesting, as I have often, that a solution to education challenges amid urban poverty lies in addressing the poverty part of the equation, she decides the problem is that public schools don't teach the right "values." She writes, "Politicians who pay lip service to the growing gap in incomes and the plight of our growing poor, black population must appreciate that this problem is first and foremost a crisis of freedom and values." I'm not entirely sure how to respond to that, beyond slowly shaking my head.

Here again we see the problem of a little learning being dangerous: Tierney, undoubtedly working from the same talking points that supplied John Fund with material for his op-ed, was willing at least to make a few calls. But he still relies on shaky or specious second-hand arguments about the program. Parker picks these up, making it now third hand, and demands more "freedom" for poor African Americans to access "values." And both make the explicitly partisan political connection to voting against Democrats. The problem is, as I discussed here yesterday, the deal to raise the caps will almost certainly benefit moderate-income white families more than the poor African American families these columnists think they're saving (by trying to turn them Republican). Neither columnist, writing from New York or Los Angeles, acknowledges what Farrell, Pumphrey, and Mathews have seen with their own eyes: "[State Rep. Polly] Williams knows from her own field visits, as do we, that many, not all, of these schools--unfortunately a large number founded and headed by African-Americans--offer little of educational value." The facts bear this out, and demands for serious accountability have been ignored in the deal brokered by Doyle and Assembly Speaker John Gard.

Benen, quoted above, notes the defeat of voucher programs on the ballots in Michigan and California. I have often wondered what the result of such a ballot question would be here in Wisconsin, and, more specifically, in Milwaukee. Farrell, Pumphrey, and Mathews begin to answer that question anecdotally, writing that their informal poll of key Milwaukee figures shows a lack of support for the program if it remains unaccountable. It's notable that State Rep. Chris Sinicki, who helped broker the deal, is just about the only Milwaukeean (and Democrat generally) supporting it, aside from vocally pro-voucher Rep. Jason Fields (another source for Tierney). Perhaps that should be Mayor Tom Barrett's next step in his quixotic quest--ask the people of Milwaukee what we actually think. Maybe then those of little learning will stop telling us what we should think.

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