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Saturday, April 23, 2011

McIlheran Watch: Busting his own myth

by folkbum

I'm still lucky enough to get an email once or twice a week from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's serial calumnist (so many thanks to iT for coining that) Patrick McIlheran. One was in my inbox this morning, regarding Sunday's column (not yet online as I write this here). The subject line was "The bargain that taxpayers may be about to lose," and if you know McIlheran's habits as well as I do, you probably have already speculated that the "bargain" has something to do with the Milwaukee Parental Choice (i.e., voucher) Program. And you are right!

McIlheran is the Milwaukee media's leading proponent of the "half-price myth," the canard that whatever the results produced by voucher schools, they're worth it because a voucher is worth half what the Milwaukee Public Schools spends on a student. This is a myth I have dealt with before (with graphs!), but the conclusion is worth repeating: MPS is mandated or obligated to spend money that voucher schools are not, and it is this unlevel playing field--the way voucher schools, for example, do not have to provide special education services--that creates a half-price appearance. When you examine what MPS considers that base cost of educating the average child, it is nearly identical to the cost of a voucher.

So what's McIlheran's plaint this week? Oddly, that voucher schools aren't getting enough taxpayer money:
Choice schools’ funding had been rising, too, until in 2009, Gov. Jim Doyle actually cut it by $165, from $6,607, per child, even as spending overall rose by about $3 billion.

There it stays, too, and that has consequences. Paul Bahr, principal at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, where about half the 681 students attend on vouchers, says the school had to cut back on spots for poor students. This year, it could only afford 59 choice freshmen.

The problem is raising enough money. It costs the school about $3,000 more per child than the voucher brings, “and that would be significantly higher if our teachers were paid what they’re worth,” said Bahr. It charges about $7,300 a year for children from tuition-paying Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations, and those churches kick in another $1 million or so in subsidies to cover the school’s losses. Other choice schools must do similar fundraising, if they can.
My best response this is simply punctuation: !!!!

The second-largest agglomeration of voucher schools--the Lutherans--can't educate a voucher student for the voucher price. Lutheran schools are subsidized by the donations of church congregations to make up the loss.

Indeed, adding the "about $3,000 more" to the voucher's about $6,500 value gives us a total of about $9,500. How much does it cost to educate a child in MPS? McIlheran helpfully includes that in his piece, warning that if the inadequate funding continues for vouchers, "[t]axpayers statewide then will pay more. Children may instead go to charters, at higher price, or into MPS, where finance officials have said the cost of an added student is at least $10,000 per year" (my emphasis). I'm not a math teacher, but my basic cyphering skills suggests that $9,500 is not significantly different from $10,000.

Now, the "MPS finance officials" added an "at least" qualifier, given the added costs of special education and such. Much to the Lutheran schools' credit, they do provide special education services. (Most voucher schools do not; there are more identified special-education students at a single MPS school, Hamilton High School, than in all of the voucher program combined.) But MPS is also required by law to do a whole slew of things the Lutheran schools are not--including not limiting how many students it takes in in a year.

The voucher program was sold to us on promises that it would provide better achievement for poor students in the state's worst district. When that didn't pan out, we were told that it's a bargain, providing equal achievement at half price. And now, we're told it's not a bargain, but rather too too lean--voucher schools are going to start packing it in unless we pay them more. With the state's Republican Party prepared to approve a major expansion of vouchers in the coming budget--beyond Milwaukee and beyond poor students--any pretense that this is some great public good is now gone.

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