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Saturday, March 28, 2009

McIlheran Watch: Pardon me, but your straw man is showing.

by folkbum

As sometimes happens, my inbox was graced this afternoon with an email from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Patrick McIlheran, who retains a place of high regard in my rogues gallery even if I don't bother writing about him much anymore. (Tom Foley has taken up a lot of the slack.) The email is pimping his column in tomorrow's paper, which is about the study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that was released earlier this week, which I wrote about here. Here's a line from the email:
Anyhow, in Sunday morning's paper, I'll look at the idiot notion that the school choice study results mean the program ought to be shut down.
Which threw me for a loop: I've followed the release of the study, the reaction, and the news about it, and I haven't read or heard a single person use the study as the basis for a call to shut down the program.

I mean, I think there are plenty of reasons to shut the program down: It socks Milwaukee taxpayers, it artificially props up religious entities that could not survive without the tax dollars the program throws their way, too many kids get lost in the shuffle of fly-by-night operators and MPS has to deal with the aftermath, voucher schools can't or won't provide services to the most challenging special-education students--you can stop me any time here, you know.

But what did I write on Thursday, in response to the study's release? In a post called "Imagine me doing an 'I told you so' dance," I complained that the level of accountability provided by this study was still not enough:
Many voucher advocates long have argued from one side of their mouths that parents must be allowed to make the best choices for their children and then argued with the other that the data to inform parents' decisions must be kept out of parents' hands.

Now we know why: There is a perception that voucher schools are or must be better. If parents were aware of reality--that there is, in fact, no difference in achievement--then the popularity of the program may well start to wane. And if the data revealed that some voucher schools are, in fact, no better than day-care centers or holding pens, then the advocates would have a serious PR problem on their hands, too--much worse than just the news that voucher schools aren't the panacea they promised two decades ago.
Got that? I wrote, pretty clearly, that the study shows that the schools need more transparency, which would give parents the look at they program that they need to make informed choices--and for many, the informed choice will be their local public school, not the voucher school trying to sell them smoke and mirrors. I said "I told you so" because for years--years, now--I have been advocating better, tighter accountability for a system that, whether I like it or not, we're stuck with.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the lede of his column when it became available on jsonline this evening:
It took, by my estimate, about 8.4 seconds for critics of Milwaukee's school choice program to achieve outrage after news that choice students progressed about as fast as Milwaukee Public Schools students.

"I told you so," said one noted blogger and MPS teacher as of 6 a.m. the day the story broke. "Taxpayers should be outraged," said one MPS official shortly thereafter.

Because, hey, if the kids aren't doing any better . . . 
Did you see that? The "noted blogger and MPS teacher" is me, my friends. (Nice how the online version of his column has links embedded throughout--but not to my post, so people could see how he's misusing me.) (He also doesn't note that I almost always post before 6 AM because I do almost all of my weekday blogging in the mornings, before work, and I was not merely extra eager to write on this topic.) The "MPS official" is Director of Research Deb Lindsey; this report from WisPolitics is shockingly messy, but I pieced it together, and the context is that "less money is going to voucher schools, yet the local taxpayers still have to pay more." But the same thing could have been said--probably has been said--by people like Tom Barrett who have been riding the "funding flaw" horse for years now--Milwaukee taxpayers are paying tens of millions more every year for the vouchers than we would if those same kids were in MPS.

There's a lot more McIlheran that Fair Use won't allow me to share with you, but you can read it yourself and see that no one he cites is demanding the program be discontinued. He slips in a little hypothetical "If critics are eager for a live-or-die decision . . ." (my emphasis) before he gets to this:
So why would anyone want to kill the program now? Well, it uses taxpayer money, as that MPS official noted. [. . .] Other critics say the state catches God cooties if anyone takes its money to a school with a chapel. [. . .] Or, say others, there's some value to getting as many kids as possible into a common set of schools - it'll somehow infuse civic values.
So where are all the people who hold "the idiot notion that the school choice study results mean the program ought to be shut down"? Nowhere, as far as I can tell. He doesn't even cite one specific person who is calling for the program to be shut down at all!

I'm off to write my letter to the editor now, what with having been used and abused for his amusement in the column (Deb Lindsey was nearly libeled, she was so badly misquoted). The link to write your letter is here, if anyone else is interested. Hint, hint.

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