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Friday, April 09, 2010

Our annual voucher study post

by folkbum

Sing with me ... third verse, same as the first two!

The state-mandated study is out comparing students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program with students in the Milwaukee Public Schools and their performance on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, and, the topline numbers reveal, there is little substantive difference between the two groups.

There are some other interesting things hinted at beyond those topline (pdf) numbers, but the really interesting part is, again, the right-wing insistence that the report vindicates the voucher program because MPCP does an equivalently mediocre job with difficult-to-educate students as MPS does, but at half the price or so.

As I have explained here before, and last year in the Compass (with a graph!), this is a misleading, if not completely false, sentiment. The cost of education your average MPS child is approximately the same as the cost of a choice voucher. The difference comes almost entirely in the costs associated with being a large public school district: busing, programs for the academically talented and expensive college-prep programs, bureaucracy to meet state and federal mandates that voucher schools are not required to comply with, summer and after-school programs required by law, services for English language learners, and--the big one--special education services. None of these things are costs voucher schools must incur, but MPS must by law.

Still, the usual suspects--McIlheran at the daily paper and Schneider at WPRI--play up the half-price myth. Here's Schneider (skipping over his bizarre psycho-sexual fantasies about store clerks):
[C]hoice schools are spending 46% as much to get the same results as the public schools. This is not insignificant, given the constant pressure applied by public schools to tax more in the name of “the kids.”
At which point the goal of all of this becomes clear, defunding public schools in the name of WPRI's ever-present mission to shrink government and save all the poor, poor rich folk from the burden of taxes.

Schneider goes on to get a number of other things utterly wrong: "The report demonstrates," he writes, "that fourth graders in the MPCP actually enter the program with lower reading and math skills than their MPS counterparts. By the eighth grade, that disparity has flipped, with the MPCP students scoring slightly better." Not so; the fourth-grade WKCE results are not some kind of entrance exam; instead, they measure the amount students learn as third-graders--a result which actually is damning for the (voucher) schools that produce the lower results. On the other hand, these results show what I as a high school teacher have known for a long time, that middle school is a giant black hole in MPS.

Schneider, again:
MPCP schools can be much more nimble in reacting to the data presented in the report. Need to improve test scores? Fire some teachers and hire better ones. Are schools underperforming? Close them down or pull them out of the program. Are there programs out there statistically proven to increase student achievement? Get off your butt and implement them. All of these options are unavailable to the monolithic public school system, which is suffocating itself with bureaucracy and cumbersome teacher union contracts.
And again, not so. The report pointedly does not disaggregate results by school, so no one voucher school has any idea whether it is failing as a result of this report. And he's also wrong that MPS doesn't have the wherewithal to make changes, as recent work on math initiatives and the new literacy plan show. (Also showing in this comment: Schneider and WPRI's long-standing disdain of the working-class union families who built this country into what it is.)

This is not, of course, the first time I have had to lay some reality on WPRI related to vouchers. In fact, the last time I did it, WPRI honcho George Lightburn was busy complaining that voucher schools might be asked to meet some of the very same mandates that public schools have to, mandates that make the half-price myth just that, a myth.

At any rate, I don't suspect that next year's results will be much different, either in test scores or in continued promulgation of falsehood and myth from pro-voucher, anti-public school forces.

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