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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

McIlheran Watch: Living in the Past on Vouchers

I have a half-finsihed post about P-Mac and the economy, but I'll let it simmer a while longer while we talk about vouchers.

McIlheran (gotta make sure he knows I spell his name right) blogs today about Milwaukee Magazine columnist Bruce Murphy's new piece. In that column, Murphy mentions the Department of Education study I wrote about on Saturday, using its good news for public schools as a jumping-off point to write his own version of McIlheran Watch. Murphy calls McIlheran a parrot for simply repeating Republican talking points instead of thinking critically. While I have long considered that a key element of the McIlheran Formula, apparently when Murphy says it--and misspells P-Mac's name--it ruffles the man's feathers. (rimshot) Here's MacIlheran:
What [Murphy]’s doing is droning on about school choice, saying something about how nothing’s certain about it or some such. He takes some time out to cite me as being a party ideologist on the subject because of a column I wrote last October in which I said suburban Republicans have little to gain from supporting school choice and in fact pay some price.

My logic, and it stems from what several nonpartisan political observers have mentioned to me, is that the program arouses opposition from teachers unions statewide, even prompting that union in three successive elections to campaign against suburban and outstate lawmakers who back school choice. Meanwhile, the program directly benefits no one in any suburban or outstate area--its aid goes entirely to parents and children in Milwaukee. In fact, groups opposed to school choice have long contended--incorrectly--that school choice in Milwaukee costs the rest of the state’s schools money. [. . .]

Whatever. He says I’m not cynical enough. Then he goes and says I have a thing for Republicans because I referred to “mayors from nice Republican places” in an ironical aside about local officials who didn’t like the Taxpayer Protection Amendment. In which case, it wasn’t a case of his being admirably cynical but of perhaps being insufficiently conscious while reading.
This is what makes my task here so easy: It's not just that P-Mac is partisan--I would be nothing less were I cursed with his job--it's that he doesn't learn, and he undercuts his own arguments so terribly much. Let's start with the whole matter of whether or not choice costs or benefits the rest of the state.

I've explained to McIlheran before that, in fact, for one biennial budget cycle, legislators did fund the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program's vouchers by reducing general aid to all districts in the state--in fact, costing most non-Milwaukee districts money. The "contended" link from McIlheran's post goes to a page from the People for the American Way's website, which is an archived html version of a 2002 study--a study that was accurate at the time it was completed, and which now I can't even find by looking through PfAW's Public Education section. I wonder if he's kept this page bookmarked for just such an occasion when pretending the past is the present would make him look good?

Actually, he's trying to contrast the PfAW study with a contemporaneously old Journal Sentinel article (the link on "incorrectly") that supposedly disproves it. Let's compare, shall we?
PfAW: Prior to the 2001-02 school year, when the legislature essentially created a separate line item in the general budget for the voucher program, half these costs were subtracted from state equalization aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), and the other half was taken away from the aid for Wisconsin’s other 425 school districts. If MPS and other districts wanted to recover the lost revenue, they would have needed to raise local property taxes.

Journal Sentinel: Under a system in place for the past two years, the state gets the $49 million for vouchers by reducing the aid it pays to each school district in Wisconsin. Half the money comes from aid to Milwaukee Public Schools, the other half from aid to other districts. Districts can raise property taxes to replace the lost aid. In estimating its overall aid package, the state assumes all districts will do so, said Russ Kava, an analyst in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Since state aid is proportional to the total of local property taxes around Wisconsin, the higher taxes mean a larger pool of state aid. [. . .] Combining the deduction for choice and the bigger aid pool, MPS has a net loss of $22.1 million. Other districts, together, have a net gain of $5.8 million, although nearly 240 individual districts outside Milwaukee have net losses.
Where is the contradiction? Is it that districts besides those 240 had net gains--gains that came only from raising property taxes to offset losses? Maybe. In either case, PfAW was accurate when it said vouchers took money from other districts; I was accurate when I pointed it out to P-Mac in February. And if McIlheran is trying to say that higher taxes for state taxpayers is an overall boon . . . well, that might require even more of an examination of his conservative credentials.

What about now?, you might be asking, recognizing that it's not 2002 anymore, and suburban and outstate Republicans are no longer eager to tinker with the funding formula. Do vouchers hurt or help school districts outside Milwaukee? The best way to answer that might be to consider what would happen were the program to vanish. Luckily, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau did just that; it became the basis for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's neglected pleas last winter to adjust the funding formula. Seth from In Effect has posted the LFB's letter here (.pdf), and it makes it pretty clear: If the voucher program vanished, and all the students in the progam ended up at MPS, the state's other school districts would lose between $74 million and $121 million in state general aid. That money would either have to be made up by property tax increases--as happened in the 1999-2001 biennium--or by cutting services drastically.

Knowing that, I would like to see McIlheran's explanation for how he can write (from his original October column, as quoted by Murphy), "suburban Republicans’ support for school choice has been pretty selfless. None of that money flows to their constituents.” They know the school districts they represent would suffer were choice to end. Period. Regardless of whether any choice money flows into their districts. (Don't forget that Alberta Darling keeps trying to change that.) They will not run to the Democrats' aid--to Milwaukee taxpayers' aid--knowing that the end of the voucher program would spike taxes for their constituents. It may have been true in 2001, when that Journal Sentinel article was published, that supporting choice would hurt suburban Republicans. But it is now now, not then.

Be nice if McIlheran learned that.

Murphy's column will eventually be archived here, so if the link above doesn't have a McIlheran story to it (scroll down), try this one.

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