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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Mudd and Norquist are wrong about vouchers--still

by folkbum

John Norquist and Susan Mudd, the former mayor of and wife-of-the-former-mayor of Milwaukee (and current residents of Chicago), have an op-ed in this morning's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel complaining about the new regulations that will be placed on private schools that receive tax money to educate children through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, colloquially known as the voucher program.

These new regulations are essentially the same ones that I wrote about here, when another non-Milwaukeean, George Lightbourn of the WPRI, called them "onerous enough for the choice schools that they will be forced to opt out of the choice program." Actually, it's not even all of those regulations, as some of the proposals were stripped from the current bill making its way through the legislature after Democrats met with voucher leaders and compromised on some of the harshest of provisions.

You can read about the current version of the proposals through Alan Borsuk's reporting here, and voucher advocates' response to them (spoiler alert: they don't care for the regulation) here. The gist of the changes are these:
  • scheduling the same number of hours of instruction each year as required in public schools,
  • administering state standardized tests and reporting the results,
  • requiring all teachers and administrators in Choice schools to have a bachelor's degree, and
  • requiring bilingual education in schools with a threshold number of English language learners.
All of these things are currently required of every single school that uses tax dollars to educate children in the state, whether traditional public schools or charter schools, with the exception of the 110 or so voucher schools in MPCP. Every. School. In. The. State.

And yet, somehow this is going to torpedo the voucher program, according to the pro-voucher camp.

What's more, some of the most sensible and responsible of the requirements--in my opinion as an educator and education writer--were dropped. (Compare the list above to the list from my Lightbourn post, linked above.) Gone is the requirement that schools demonstrate their capability to educate (via accreditation) before we cut them a check or put our children in their hands. Gone is the proposal that schools that take and spend your tax dollars open up their meetings and their records for the public to see. Gone is the requirement that schools develop and internally consistent written policies for passing and graduating students. And there never was a provision to require voucher schools to offer accommodations for the special-education students they accept.

Mudd and Norquist, though, cannot believe how powerful is the hammer that is about to come down on the program, and, in a near-textbook example of unwarranted extrapolation, blame Jim Doyle and legislative Democrats for the end of western civilization as we know it:
Nonetheless, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has included in his biennial budget bill new regulation cloaked as "accountability." Democrats on the Legislature's budget-writing committee last week added funding cuts and requirements for bilingual programs to the new mandates. [. . .] Will this improve education? No. Private schools in the choice program will need to shift scarce remaining resources from educating kids to administration.

Our cities--indeed our nation--will not thrive if we, unique among all advanced industrialized nations, rely solely on an under-producing government school monopoly and deprive citizens of the freedom to choose the schools best for their children.
OMG! Schools will have to "shift scarce remaining resources from educating kids to administration"! Let's hope no one tells Mudd and Norquist about the new burdens coming down on MPS for not making AYP again!

Aside from the histrionics, Mudd and Norquist also offer up a number of questionable assertions and, just as bad, allow anecdote to become argument. They write:
Educational innovation is giving parents more of what they want. Before school choice, Milwaukee had two public and two private Montessori schools. Now there are seven public and eight private Montessori schools and one private Waldorf school, which our son, Ben, attended.

Results are not the issue. Three studies show that choice students graduate at higher rates than students in public schools. Research also shows public schools improving because of the competition school choice brings to bear. Even public school teachers have benefited; as performance has gained importance, Milwaukee Public Schools and the teachers union have focused bargaining more on pay and classroom conditions to retain skilled teachers and less on pension and severance issues for those about to leave.
Problems abound. For one, the "studies" do not say what Mudd and Norquist say they say. The studies of high school graduation rates (I've written about most of them before; click on the "Milwaukee Parental Choice Program" tag at the end of this post and they'll be in there somewhere) were flawed in various ways. Some counted the four-year graduation rate (many MPS students are on the five-year plan or finish at MATC); some did not account for differences in demographics or just the fact that students whose families opt out of MPS tend to be the kind of families whose children also graduate, on-time and easily, from MPS--not the kind of families that tolerate or encourage truancy and drop-outs.

Further, the first two years of state-mandated studies have shown that voucher students and MPS students achieve at about the same rates--which understates the far-too-frequent catastrophic failures of voucher schools (by my count, the state had closed six in this school year for various reasons). Plus, the state-mandated study, authored in part by long-time voucher advocate Jay Greene (who also did at least one of the graduation studies cited by Mudd and Norquist), that found that competition had improved MPS was flawed and showed, at best, "the practical effect of competition through vouchers appears to be small, if not negligible" (.pdf). Mudd and Norquist offer the classic post hoc argument for an increasing diversity in educational options within MPS, ignoring similar diversification has happened in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, and, locally, Madison, all without the threat of vouchers. (Mudd and Norquist also omit the Urban Waldorf School, an MPS school.)

Finally, Mudd and Norquist offer the anecdote of their son Ben's experience as being somehow representative of what voucher students across the city experience:
We chose Tamarack Community School, a K-8 school whose enrollment of 212 includes 141 choice students, because we value the way the school seeks to educate the whole child, first focusing on imaginative play and later teaching reading. Our son had the same teacher for six years. He learned well and earns superior grades at a demanding private high school in Chicago. Almost all of his former classmates are succeeding as well.
Believe me: There was probably nothing typical about the education of the mayor's son. I also have a hard time believing that the advantages of having two college-educated, relatively wealthy white parents had nothing to do with Ben's educational acumen. I have written repeatedly here about how poverty, more than anything else, is the best predictor of student achievement. Standard disclaimers apply: not every poor kid fails, and not every rich kid succeeds. But when you're the mayor's son, there are enough other factors at play to suggest success; if even half my current students had half the privilege of Mudd and Norquist's son, my job would be a thousand times easier.

Moreover, Tamarack School is hardly typical of voucher schools generally. Its long-standing program and time-tested curriculum (90 years or so since Rudolf Steiner started the Waldorf system) is a far cry from the kind of fly-by-night operations that usually populate the lists of schools applying to the program every year. If all voucher schools were like Tamarack, efforts to regulate the program more tightly would not be necessary, and the program would not have between a quarter and third of its students turning over every year.

Mudd and Norquist frame the argument as a specific attack against Democrats making these changes. Mayor in Milwaukee is a non-partisan office, but it was no secret that Norquist was a Democrat and they were active in the local party. The title of their op-ed makes it clear: "Disgracing our party's own ideals," it's called. There is a whole other post or two or three in knocking down the "liberal" argument for vouchers (as one Norquista described it, wealthy white families have always have had a choice where to go (as it turns out, they settled on the suburbs), and African American families shouldn't allow poverty to make that choice for them). I won't get into that here.

However, the internecine fighting sure perks up the Journal Sentinel's right-wing talking-point dispenser conservative Patrick McIlheran, who celebrates the pie fight on his blog today. Of course, he's also dedicated his column ths morning to bemoaning the same regulations as Mudd and Norquist, since these requirements are so terrible that it takes two columns to cover the enormity. (The balancing opinion, explaining why such regulation is a good idea, is provided by, well, nobody. The closest you get is what you're reading now, far removed from jsonline.) So, thanks, Susan and John, for throwing the Republican dogs some red meat. The Democrats you've left behind sure appreciate it.

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