Voucher Voodoo

Trolling around on the Internet the other day, I came across a March 17 press release from the Wisconsin Federation for Children, one of the leading groups lobbying for the private school voucher imposition proposal included in Governor Walker’s budget bill.

The press release states:

It’s hard to believe, but some government officials have actually called Governor Walker’s educational choice proposals “extreme”. . . .

The truly “extreme” position is that of the entrenched education establishment whose vast members want to collectively bury its head in the sand and pretend that every child is receiving an excellent education. One Madison school board member recently said, “Most people in Madison would reject the notion that we have failing schools in Madison.” Yet, statistics show that more than 20 percent of the students in Madison are attending failing schools!

The quoted Madison School Board member is me. I should probably have thicker skin by now, but this one got my juices flowing. As one of the entrenched education establishment’s vast members (I really should exercise more), I have removed my (or our) head from the sand long enough to put together this response.

First, I provide some background on the private school voucher imposition proposal. Next, I list thirteen ways in which the proposal and its advocates are hypocritical, inconsistent, irrational, or just plain wrong. Finally, I briefly explain for the benefit of Wisconsin Federation for Children why the students in Madison are not attending failing schools.

I. Background: Reverse-Engineering the Voucher Imposition Formula

There are groups that for deeply ideological reasons are interested in undermining public education. One of their prime strategies is the expansion of private school vouchers, by which the provision of education moves away from a shared and unifying community obligation model and toward a parental smorgasbord model. These organizations – and the Wisconsin Federation of Children is certainly one – have found their champion in Governor Walker.

So far in Wisconsin private school vouchers have been imposed upon the Milwaukee and Racine school districts. One of the provisions in the Governor’s budget bill calls for the imposition of private school vouchers on additional school districts that satisfy criteria specified in the bill. The school districts must have an enrollment that exceeds 4,000 students and must have at least two schools that received “school report cards” from the Department of Public Instruction last fall that ranked the schools in one of the bottom two of the five school report card categories.

Nine school districts in the state meet these criteria: Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, Beloit, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee. If the budget bill is enacted as proposed, then students in each of these districts can claim vouchers so that the state (and their home school district) will pick up much of the tuition tab for them to attend private schools.

As the press release illustrates, the privatization advocates have taken to arguing that private school vouchers are necessary so that the intended beneficiary students can escape the wasteland of the failed public schools they are otherwise doomed to attend.

I find it dismaying that, for ideological reasons, the governor of our state seems to be taking every opportunity to label schools in the state’s largest cities as failures. A bit of historical perspective can be useful in explaining how we got to this point.

Since Governor Walker’s election, private school voucher advocates have been pushing hard on the Governor and his Republican allies in the legislature for a sweeping expansion of the voucher program that has existed for low-income Milwaukee students for many years. As the governor’s first budget bill two years ago worked its way through the legislature, it included expansion of the voucher program to Racine and Green Bay. There was considerable push-back on this proposal, in part because no reason was apparent why Racine and Green Bay should be singled out this way. In the end, Racine ended up with vouchers and Green Bay did not.

Fast forward to 2013. The voucher school advocates are now targeting Green Bay, Kenosha, Beloit and Madison. But, sensitive to the criticisms from last time around, I suspect that they felt a need to construct some sort of justification for targeting those school districts. What they came up with is the two-pronged test described above: If a school district has an enrollment in excess of 4,000 students and at least two of its schools fall into the bottom two of the five DPI state school report card categories, then all of the district’s students who meet the specified income requirements become eligible for vouchers. As the following paragraphs explain, there are a lot of problems with this approach.

II. Thirteen Oddities, Inconsistencies, Flaws and Other Shortcomings Evident in the Private School Voucher Imposition Proposal and its Advocates.

1. At the most basic level, it is quite unusual to see Republican politicians touting a new or expanded entitlement program catering to the whims of those who are dissatisfied with the level of service the government provides them and who fall on the lower end of the income scale, the same group of citizens that Paul Ryan has memorably referred to as “takers” rather than “makers.”

2. Moving to the proposal itself, use of the school report card scores as the triggering cause for voucher imposition is inappropriate. This is the first year for the report cards, which were issued by DPI in October. They were neither designed nor intended to be relied upon to attach such significant consequences to schools’ first and only scores.

3. There is no reason for the 4,000 student enrollment cut-off, which immediately eliminates the threat of voucher imposition for 90% of the state’s school districts. Ten school districts had two or more schools ranked in the bottom two DPI report card categories but escaped the voucher imposition formula because their enrollments are less than 4,000.

4. Voucher school advocates have taken to referring to the schools identified by the voucher formula as “failing,” as the Wisconsin Federation for Children press release illustrates. If this is the advocates’ adjective of choice, then the schools to be identified by the voucher formula should have been the ones that fell in the bottom tier of the report card ranking system: “fails to meet expectations.”

Inconveniently for the voucher advocates however, the school districts that had two or more schools fall into this bottom category – other than Milwaukee and Racine, where vouchers are already available – are Sheboygan, Rhinelander, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis-West Milwaukee. This list does not include the school districts the voucher advocates have in their cross-hairs: Green Bay, Beloit, Kenosha and Madison.

The voucher advocates’ response to this dilemma was to expand the formula to include schools in the “meeting few expectations” category. This swept 14% of the state’s schools into the voucher formula. The advocates then relied upon the 4,000 enrollment minimum to filter out non-targeted school districts.

The expansion of the category has had the desired effect. While Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis – West Milwaukee all exceed the enrollment threshold and so are included on the basis of their “fails to meets expectations” schools, the expanded list also includes, along with Fond du Lac, the targeted districts of Green Bay, Beloit, Kenosha and Green Bay.

5. That the formula is essentially a sham jerry-rigged to reach a pre-determined result is confirmed by a remarkable article in the March 8 Superior Telegram. According to the article, Governor Walker recently visited Superior and assured the residents that while the Superior school district met the voucher test formula, they needn’t worry about vouchers coming to town.

In an interview with the newspaper, Walker said that the expansion of the voucher program “is specifically targeted to areas where he’s heard interest from parents and some private school officials.” According to Walker, “We didn’t include Superior because we targeted given districts, whether that’s Beloit, Green Bay or Madison.” According to the paper, “Walker said Superior technically meets the criteria for the Parental Choice Program [i.e., the private school voucher program], but providing vouchers here isn’t part of his plan.”

6. Voucher eligibility is determined on a school district basis. However, while the budget bill includes a proposal to expand the report card system to rank school districts, eligibility for the vouchers isn’t determined on a school district-wide basis but rather on the basis of individual school scores.

Madison has 47 schools that received report card scores. While 14% of the state’s schools fell into the two categories included in the voucher imposition test, the Madison school district would be deemed failing and hence eligible for the imposition of vouchers if 5% of its schools were so categorized. (As it happens, more than 5% of Madison’s schools were categorized as “meets few expectations,” which I discuss further below.)

7. Governor Walker has been saying that if schools raise their scores sufficiently in future years, the voucher imposition will somehow be withdrawn. But that’s not what his bill states. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis, the Budget Bill specifies “that a district that qualifies as an eligible district [for private school vouchers] would remain qualified in subsequent years.”

8. The imposition of private school vouchers is triggered by two or more schools in a large school district falling into the lower two of the DPI school report card’s five categories. However, once private school vouchers are imposed upon a school district, students attending any of the district’s schools can claim a voucher for tuition at a private school.

This makes no sense. One of Madison’s schools, Lapham Elementary, is ranked by school report card score among the top one percent of the state’s schools (17th out of 1,907 schools with report cards). If the private school voucher imposition proposal is enacted, any student at Lapham is entitled to abandon the school and receive state support to attend the private school of his or her choice (which, by the law of averages, is quite unlikely to rank among the top 1% of the state’s private schools).

9. None of the private schools willing to accept voucher students from the targeted districts has received a DPI report card score. Even if judged by the report card score methodology, there is no basis to conclude that the performance of the private schools to which voucher students would flee have any better performance than the public schools they wish to abandon.

10. Under the budget bill proposal, students who are already attending private schools in the targeted districts can claim vouchers, even though their prior enrollment in the private schools establishes that they do not need vouchers to attend the schools of their choice.

The final three shortcomings of the proposal reflect serious flaws in the school report card methodology when report card scores are used to rank schools against each other.

11. The most troubling flaw of the methodology is that the demographic makeup of schools has a dramatic impact on the report card scores. The sad but undeniable fact is that there are large gaps in the average performance of different groups of students in our state. These differences skew the report card scores.

As I have previously written in excruciating detail, a school’s report card score represents the cumulative total of the school’s scores on four different measures, referred to as (1) Student Achievement, (2) Student Growth, (3) Closing Gaps, and (4) On-Track and Post-Secondary Readiness. The first and fourth measures are significantly affected by the demographics of the school.

For example, if all the students in an elementary school were African-American and performed right at the state average for African-American students, then, based on 2011-12 data (which is all that is available on the DPI website) the school would have a Student Achievement score of about 35 out of 100. If all the students in an elementary school were white and performed right at the state average for white students, the school would have a Student Achievement score of about 70 out of 100. (The state average score on this measure for all elementary schools is 66.4.)

Similarly, if all the students in a high school were African-American and performed right at the state average for African-American students, the school would have an “On-Track and Postsecondary Readiness” score of about 59 out of 100. If all the students in a high school were white and performed right at the state average for white students, the school would have an On- Track score of about 87. (The state average score on this measure for all high schools is 82.3.)

The expected performance of schools on the report card measures will vary dramatically based upon the demographic make-up of the schools. Consequently, the differences in scores earned by different schools will in many cases be far more attributable to differences in demographics than to differences in relative performance. None of this is taken into account in the private school voucher imposition formula.

12. In addition to the four different measures included in the report card score, schools can lose five points on their scores if they fall short in terms of test participation, absenteeism, or dropout rate. If more than five percent of a school’s students or specified subgroups of students do not take the WKCE, for example, the school’s score is reduced by five points. Five points are a lot. There are about three hundred schools that would have tumbled into the “meets few expectations” category if they had been docked five points.

This creates some perverse incentives. Parents in larger school districts who are interested in triggering voucher eligibility could band together and simply not send their children to school on the WKCE testing days. The more children who stay home, the more likely their school will lose five points on their report card score.

13. The school report card methodology also includes illogical and unfair preferences for schools with a relatively high percentage of students who start the school year with advanced scores on the WKCE, are smaller rather than larger, and have growing rather than decreasing enrollment. The scoring is thus inherently biased in favor of growing suburban schools and against urban schools with constant or declining enrollments.

III. So What About Madison’s Schools? Are They Failing or Not?

Okay, I can hear you thinking, the private school voucher imposition proposal has some shortcomings. But this long blog post was prompted by my taking offense at the Wisconsin Federation for Children’s assertion that 20% of the students in the Madison school district are attending failing schools. How is that assertion wrong?

Contrary to the Wisconsin Federation for Children’s press release, I do not pretend that every student in our Madison schools is receiving an excellent education. We have a very serious achievement gap problem in Madison. As a general matter, white students in the Madison school district tend to outperform the state averages for white students while our African-American and Latino students tend to underperform the state averages for their groups.

The wide disparity in the achievement levels of our Madison students is mirrored in the range of report card scores assigned to our schools. While we have no schools falling into the “fails to meet expectations” category, we have too many – twelve – that were categorized as “meets few expectations.” This represents 6.3% of the state’s schools falling into this category. On the other hand, Madison also boasts 7.4% (5 of 68) of the state’s schools qualifying for the highest category – significantly exceeds expectations.

As a whole, if a district were assigned an overall grade on the traditional four-point scale based on the report card scores its schools received, Madison would be right at the state average with a 2.2. Since Madison’s schools are significantly more diverse than the state average, this can be considered a respectable showing.

If the state were genuinely interested in reviewing the relative performance of the state’s school districts in educating whatever mix of students walk in their doors, it would rely on value-added measures rather than unadjusted school report card scores. “Value added” refers to the use of statistical techniques to measure a school’s impact on its students’ standardized test scores, controlling for such student characteristics as prior years’ scores, gender, ethnicity, disability, and low-income status. A recently-enacted state law requires the use of value-added analysis in teacher effectiveness evaluation. Ironically, value added is much better suited for comparing the performance of school districts rather than individual teachers, given the law of big numbers.

Madison has been receiving value added analyses from the Value-Added Research Center (VARC) of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research for the last several years. Here is the primary conclusion in our most recent report from last May: “Over the past three years (2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11), value-added for the entire district of Madison has been near average in math and above average in reading relative to the rest of the state.” While our scores dipped in 2010-11 and we need to do better, this is not a description of a failing school system.

While Madison is by no means a failing school system, we do take the challenges we face very seriously. We are adopting the most promising strategies we can find to bring up the achievement level of our underperforming students. As a rule, these strategies cost money. To the extent that a private school voucher imposition program drains money from the school district – and due to the vagaries of the state school funding formula, the imposition of vouchers would cost Madison a ton of money — we will be much less able to implement the changes we need to help narrow the achievement gap. That is a prime reason why the private school voucher imposition proposal and its propaganda-spewing advocates like the Wisconsin Alliance for Families pose such a threat to Madison’s public schools and its 27,000 students.

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13 Responses to Voucher Voodoo

  1. The American Federation for Children does not represent children. Its sole mission is to fill empty seats in private schools. The real truth is that prior to the voucher movement, private school enrollment was declining. Now the taxpayer is subsidizing private schools which were not the choice of people who could afford them in sufficient number to keep them in business.

  2. David Blaska says:

    Ed, a very thoughtful post, as usual. Allow me to abbreviate for our friends with attention deficit disorder: “We have a monopoly on the educational tax dollar (unless you’re willing to ship your kids out of town — or move). We prefer to keep it.”

    • David —

      Yes, I believe that our public schools should be the recipients of our educational tax dollars. Here is why.

      Madison’s public schools have no monopoly on K-12 education in Madison, of course. Students are free to attend parochial or other private schools, open enroll into public schools in neighboring school districts or into virtual schools, or be home schooled.

      Madison’s public schools also don’t have a monopoly on governmental aid to K-12 schools. The property of parochial and other private schools is tax-exempt, which is a form of governmental support, and students in the schools also get some assistance with respect to transportation and special education services.

      Article X, section 3 of the Wisconsin constitution states that “the legislature shall provide by law for the establishment of district schools, which shall be as nearly uniform as practicable; and such schools shall be free and without charge for tuition to all children between the ages of 4 and 20 years; and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed therein. . . .” Consistent with this constitutional requirement, the legislature has established requirements for public schools under the direction of locally-elected school boards.

      Within the limits established by state and federal law, local school boards establish and operate local K-12 schools and impose property taxes on their constituents to pay for that portion of the costs of the schools that remains after state and federal aid is accounted for.

      Under these circumstances, I believe that our local public schools should be the sole recipients of our public tax dollars that are earmarked for the operation of our public schools. I don’t think that much-needed support should be drained from our public schools in order to fund private and parochial schools. As the Madison School Board’s statement opposing the Governor’s voucher plan states, “Our public tax dollars should go to fund our public schools that accept all of our children, are accountable for results and are shaped by the policies set by the school board that our community elects.”

      Sure, parents who send their children to parochial schools would be happy to see their tuition go down if voucher revenue is directed their way. I’m sure that there are also students enrolled in our Madison public schools would prefer to attend private or parochial schools if it were more affordable for them.

      But there is no legitimate public policy reason to cater to individual parents’ wishes on this. We shouldn’t subsidize the alternatives chosen by individual citizens who opt-out of the public services made available to them. If someone doesn’t like hunting in state parks or think campgrounds are too noisy, we don’t send then vouchers to let them stay in private campgrounds. If groups of citizens are unhappy with their local police departments for some reason, we don’t send them private security firm vouchers. If some folks don’t like the choice of books at their local library, we don’t send them vouchers in the form of Amazon.com gift certificates.

      There is even less reason to send vouchers to folks who want to opt-out of our public schools, since having all neighborhood children attending their local schools so that they can learn with and from each other is a positive social good.

      There is no sound public policy justification for vouchers. The only plausible argument for them depends upon a truly failing public school system, where vouchers can be seen as a form of triage intended to provide better opportunities for students who truly are trapped in bad schools. Whatever one thinks of Milwaukee, that rationale is simply inapplicable elsewhere in our state.

      But because it is their only card to play, the voucher advocates are off on their campaign to paint the schools in Madison, Green Bay, Beloit and Kenosha as failing, regardless of what the facts are. As one who has devoted lots and lots of hours toward addressing the genuine challenges our Madison schools face, I find the corrosive and destructive cynicism evident in that strategy particularly offensive.

      • David Blaska says:

        Ed, love that Voodoo that you do! Ed: A strong argument — but your client is still guilty, and unrepentant.
        Your argument founders on this central statement: “There is no legitimate public policy reason to cater to individual parents’ wishes …”
        I’d love to see that as your campaign slogan when you seek re-election!
        The entire economic and political history of our great experiment is to increase individual decision-making, not decrease it. America stands for greater choice, not lesser choice. In that way, you have taken sides with the one-party states where elites on both extremes of the political spectrum determine the choices.
        A few well placed gatekeepers at the three major networks once determined what news and entertainment programming the public would see. No more, thanks to cable and satellite; whose content goes unregulated by the federal government. The internet permits blogs such as yours and mine to reach a greater public than a daily newspaper editor who could refuse to publish our maunderings.
        Remember the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine? It killed off the presidential debates until repealed. The deregulation of the airlines has brought competition and lower prices. It was thought (I hope it’s not past tense) that one could choose his health care provider.
        In education, certainly the G.I. Bill revolutionized American society; its beneficiaries could take their vouchers to the Jesuits at Marquette or to the socialists at the University of Wisconsin. The same for Pell grants.

        I am ruling as out of order your assertion that Madison’s public schools don’t have a monopoly on governmental aid. Yes, the city maintains Monroe Street as it passes by Edgewood High School just as it does Gammon past Memorial H.S. (BTW: No. #1 son attended both!) Yes, the police department will endeavor to keep both places safe. (Nice try.)
        A more apt comparison is having to pay Microsoft even if you choose Apple. Nice business model!

        Nor do I accept your examples of hunting and camping. Those activities are paid for by the users and are self-supporting. They pay nothing to the state if they choose a private campground or game farm. In the same way, the gasoline tax, driver’s and vehicle licensing fees are meant to pay for our road system (although I see where Gov. Walker wants to borrow from the general fund). You don’t play, you don’t pay.
        Nor does the Constitution, from what you have cited, prohibit private school vouchers. As you are undoubtedly aware, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). As did the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998, in a 4-2 decision.

        In the current proposed expansion of school choice, Sen. Ellis has proposed public referenda at each school district. Let’s think this through. If a school district voted 99 to 1 against vouchers, what is the harm caused by that one family exercising a different choice? If the vote is 50 to 49 against vouchers, why would you deny the 49 their choice?
        Public schools are not an end in themselves; they are a means to an end. Where they are strong, they will prevail. Where not, they lose market share or get busy improving. Why are you so fearful about the decisions Madison parents would make? Let’s have some faith in the virtues of a competitive marketplace. As for local control, can we agree that no control is more local than the kitchen table?

  3. Peggy says:

    Governor Walker’s plan to continue defunding public schools, then claiming they are failing, and giving money to voucher schools is like shooting someone in the foot, then saying, “You’re limping so we’re going to take away your shoes and give them to that guy over there cause he doesn’t like the ones he’s got.”

    • David Blaska says:

      This is as much of a reply to Ed as it is to Peggy. Ed writes, “the only plausible argument for [vouchers] depends upon a truly failing public school system, where vouchers can be seen as a form of triage …. Whatever one thinks of Milwaukee, that rationale is simply inapplicable elsewhere in our state.” I would argue that rationale is completely applicable to Madison. Just ask the Madison Urban League. Your argument, Ed and Peggy, illustrates the principle that while a large school district may be a success overall it may be failing a discrete population. Or are we in denial about the minority achievement gap which (I did not realize until recently) is worse in Madison than it is in the remainder of Dane County!

  4. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed,

    Your post was rather informative. I will say, and this should come as no surprise, I am on the right side of middle and not the left side of middle.

    I do not know how I feel about vouchers. I for one choose to send my children to public schools in Madison. I could send them to private schools or to Middleton, Verona or another system via transfer (more on this below).

    But many others in our community are not lucky enough or blessed enough to be able to afford this decision. And in reality, a decision that is out of reach financially is not really a viable decision.

    But what really “gets me” about this whole debate is that MMSD is simply trying to have it all sorts of ways. Remember the time that MMSD wanted to prevent families from taking the inter-district transfer route? I believe you (royal you) wanted to means test the transfer or certainly keep the tax dollars in MMSD even though the student left the district. So the same group that brought us that idea is now talking about great schools?

    Ed, I could be driving in the safest state in the country. Heck, I could be driving on the safest road in town. But if I drive a certain road (probably a round-about) and there are wrecks all over the place, who cares how safe the other roads are! I am only interested in the one my family travels. And that is the real issue in Madison. You say above that African-American kids perform below average. Who cares if others are above – what do you say to the parent of that child? Or the community representing that group? And by the way, as I recall when looking at the data in detail, the race of the child really isn’t the determining factor, it is the income of the family. But that is a WHOLE other story…

    Simply stated Ed, the schools are failing if there are children or a group of children that are being left behind in the dust. The time has come (well, it really came years and years ago but no one at MMSD was paying attention) to try something different because the same approach has not worked.

    So let’s hear from the Board about what you are going to do different in MMSD. Because doing more of the same is the perfect definition of insanity – doing the same thing yet expecting a different result.

  5. David — Actually, the telecommunications deregulation analogy isn’t a good one for you. Competition came to the long distance telephone business in the 1970’s because new technology eliminated the natural monopoly structure of the market. Competition was slower to come to the local telephone business. The established local providers, like the old Wisconsin Bell (now ATT), complained that the local competition was unfair because the local companies were providers of last resort – they had to serve everyone, even those who were more expensive to serve because, for example, they lived in remote areas. ATT lobbied hard for elimination of their provider of last resort obligation. The Wisconsin legislature agreed and the company no longer has that obligation.

    School districts are the providers of last resort for the students in their school districts. They cannot – and do not want to – deny schooling to students who are particularly expensive to serve. With vouchers, private schools can accept the students they want. Of course their costs will be lower, and the difference will only grow more pronounced to the extent that vouchers lead to school stratification and tax dollars going to support all kinds of schools.

    If K12 schools were truly an unregulated market, then public schools, with their higher legacy costs and their higher costs of serving their students with greater needs, would be driven out of business. Perhaps that’s the outcome you seek, perhaps not. But with the kind of unrestrained private school voucher regime that the Wisconsin Federation for Children and their allies champion, the only alternative to going out of business is a hollowed-out public school system with a continuing obligation to serve all children, including those with the greatest needs, and with less resources to do so.

    From a societal perspective, that’s indisputably a bad outcome. For those concerned about the future of Madison, it’s an outcome we should work hard to avoid.

    Mad4Madison — The good that came out of the consideration of the Madison Prep proposal is that it led to a greater awareness of the achievement gap and to a much stronger commitment on the part of the school district and school board to do something about it. While there is no silver bullet solution, we on the School Board are unusually united in our commitment to make the changes that we think hold the greatest promise for improving the achievement of our underperforming students. The hiring of Jennifer Cheatham as our new superintendent is the most obvious and significant manifestation of this commitment. I am more optimistic than I have ever been that we will actually be in a position to bring about improvement, assuming the Board provides Jen Cheatham with the support she needs and we are able to dodge the grenades that the budget bill is launching in our direction.

    The changes we need to make generally require more spending and also require a strong community commitment to our public schools. (And, yes, they also require more commitment and acountability on the part of our underperforming students themselves and their parents.) It is very hard to see how we could effectively implement these changes in the midst of the unraveling of the social fabric supporting our public schools that vouchers would bring about.

    On a more basic level. one’s position on vouchers seems to depend in part on one’s perspective. If you take a system-wide view, then there seems to be no question that vouchers are a very bad policy, for the reasons I have tried to explain. Indeed I would be interested in reading the views of anyone who can make a plausible case that the introduction of vouchers is not an unmitigated disaster for a school district.

    On the other hand, if you view the issue from the perspective of individual students, then you are more likely to find the idea of vouchers attractive. Some students will do better in private schools, not all the parents of these students can afford the private schools, and so some students would likely benefit if vouchers were made available.

    But this is too narrow a focus. Ultimately, the students left behind in the public schools will be worse off with vouchers. These students may not have parents who will advocate for them, but their success or failure is just as important to all of us as the voucher recipients.

    In addition, it is inarguable that our public schools will also be worse off with vouchers, since the vouchers can set off a vicious cycle of more and more families bailing on our public schools. It is baffling to me why anyone would support policies that seem so clearly designed to lead to this outcome.

    • David Blaska says:

      Ed, a worthy discussion. I would argue that new technology has come to education. Certainly with virtual schools and distance learning. But also with charter schools, has come new — and more nimble — structure. But to your main point, choice schools that choose to accept vouchers cannot discriminate against special needs students. Again, you have to ask yourself, why WOULD “more and more families bail on our public schools.” Why do you so fear the decisions parents would make unless you lacked confidence in your product?

  6. lancerparent says:

    I can answer this (albeit in just in an anecdotal way). Just a little background: I have three children, one in an east side Madison elementary school, one in an east side Madison middle school, and one in an east side Madison high school. My husband and I have personally experienced the very homogeneous environment of private school educations ourselves. Moreover, my extended family is personally and currently very involved in one of the very few “successful” Milwaukee voucher schools. I can bet you Mr. Blaska, as someone whose family is deeply entrenched in voucher schools, that the people with special need children who may use private school vouchers would probably not be…the boy whose parents are abusive,…the girl whose parents just don’t give a crap about what she does in school,.. the child whose parent is too poor and over-worked and exhausted to go through the search of finding the most “suitable” school for their child,…the kid who moves from school to school over just a few months, or the child whose parent just committed suicide! These are just some, but all too often, general descriptions of some of the kids that mine have gone to school with and made friends with throughout the system over and over again throughout the years. Moreover, I volunteer A LOT in their schools (with my privileged private school experience and, with honestly, an ingrained skeptical view regarding the rigor and effectiveness of public education by the way). And for the most part, the people working with these kids, among so many other students at the OPPOSITE range of the spectrum, are amazingly hard working, caring, intelligent and effective individuals: to be frank, saints and true professionals of their craft. Of’course there is room for changes, improvement, etc. (especially when it comes to the achievement gap and adapting to 20th century skills, and god forbid, even union rules)..and that is definitely the talk and practice as of lately! Even if (by some miracle) such non-special ed kids and their families were to embrace vouchers, I cannot see private schools up to taking on, or even more importantly, successfully educating such challenging non-special ed kids more than the teachers who work with them now do. I will tell you this as a Madison tax payer: if someone told me that THESE troubled kids were the majority of the kids that vouchers would take on…AND be held accountable to (which I truly doubt under current proposals)…I would say, yes, please…for the good of them and ALL our children (let’s spread the responsibility and burden as a unified society), but I see no evidence that this is the intention of this initiative, and really don’t understand why this is being proposed at the expense of the MAJORITY of our student body. The last thing these public school teachers, parents, schools, and MY kids and the majority of their classmates who stay within and those who care about the system need, is some policy undermining their educational prospects for the needs of a few (suspiciously not the needy mentioned above) whom already have numerous choices currently available in our area. We don’t need another entitlement expansion which will only water down an already strapped and over-worked institution truly struggling and genuinely attempting to adapt to serve the MAJORITY of society’s kids. Moreover, and I am just going to be frank again, (remember, this is anecdotal), but the majority of families that we’ve known throughout the years who have used one of the already numerous educational choices currently available, and who have “bailed” on our local schools on this side of town, have been some of the most scared and prejudice white people I have ever met,…with ironically already academically “successful” kids! Perhaps fear and ignorance is part of the problem, not the “product” that mmsd has provided. Personally, with three very different kids in my home, the product has worked exceptionally for us, and we are truly not the most perfect parents! Honestly, families around here have enough choices already…why hamstring the institutions and professionals truly in the educational trenches by drawing away already scant resources. Honestly, “choice” is over rated, and lets “parenting” off the hook. If the state really believes in choice making a difference, then maybe the focus of policy should be on drawing the difficult, disadvantaged, shortchanged, damaged, and those not labeled special needs but still struggling students and their families to use the choice that already exists, rather than extend an already inefficient choice system that seems to serve the informed and/or invested families. This whole expansion initiative is truly suspicious, and this is just one Madison tax paying family that is not buying into the farce.

    • Mad4Madison says:

      I believe I understand the theme of your comments above, but I have to admit that I get lost and rather upset at some of your specifics.

      First, to claim that people who leave MMSD (another district or private) are “bailing” is simply adding more rhetoric to the discussion. Many of my very close friends have left MMSD and I would not ever state that they “bailed.”

      Second, choice is not over rated and certainly does not let parenting off the hook. I cannot parent another person’s child in school. I cannot parent another person’s child in their home. But I see the personal sacrifices that families make that allow their children to attend another school. Clue for you – not all kids that attend private schools are “rich.” By using these labels – and you used a lot of them above – you simply add to the discord. I am guessing that was not your intention, but that you wanted to point out that MMSD can be successful and that it works for your family.

      And it works for mine too. Again, if I chose to do so, I could send my kids to another school. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that my wife and I discussed this at length. But we decided to stay in MMSD even though we felt (and to a degree still feel) that the district could give a rip about my kids. And you know something – it has been a great decision. But it comes at a cost – little to no homework, low academic standards in specific schools and an additional cost for us to provide tutors for our kids because of discipline issues in the classroom distracting our teachers from… well teaching!

      I have spent many an hour in schools, Board meetings, one on one meetings with administrators and my wife has volunteered at least several thousand hours for schools in Madison. And I assure you that has nothing to do with our parenting skills.

      So please, keep the great dialog and examples of your success coming. But do not label or cast ill will on people who make a different choice. If you want respect for your decisions, you need to also give it.

      • lancerparent says:

        First off, bailing was in reference to Mr. Blaska’s using that term (that’s why it was in quotes). Second, never used or implied the word rich. Also, and I thought I made it clear…experiencing racism on this side of town in terms of words spoken by other families and their subsequent white flight has been my family’s personal experience…and the numerous choices available didn’t make them think twice in some of these circumstances…it’s just a fact. East side, west side, far west side, etc…there can be very different communities within Madison, and very different experiences as well. Yours sound surely different from mine. And really, yes, parents can be other kids “parents” in many ways. I wish more people in our community felt that way. Ok…maybe a little clarification: choice already exists in our community, and no one claimed it was an easy decision to make, and I definitely think it is warranted to a certain extent; however, and my ultimate point was and remains…that this voucher expansion sounds, I fear, suspiciously like something other than just “more opportunities for our kids,” and proposed at a time when I feel that things are taking a turn for the better in our schools. And moreover, I fear that the kids whose families don’t use the choice programs are probably the ones who may need help and alternative opportunities the most. It sounds like it has been a struggle for your children’s education, but I’m sure because of your involvement, they will be better off for it. We’d all be better off if there were more families like that in our community.

  7. mary battaglia says:

    I see no research based reason my tax dollars should be used as vouchers. Currently 1/2 that will use vouchers or tax credit per proposal already attend the parochial schools in the area and therefore we would just be sending tax dollars to non-public schools. I have three very different kids, one excelled and is attending a very good college, one is a solid B HS student that just wants to play guitar, sports, and socialize and is happy being a B student and one that has struggled emotionally, and academically and will just barely graduate and I will celebrate more than I ever have when she graduates! I looked for “choices” for her. From 7th grade on I realized she needed a smaller school, focused on helping someone with emotional issues but not a delinquent or misbehaving student. Actually, there are no choices for shall we say secular students. My daughter strongly does not belief in God, Christianity or any greater being…..she was raised a Christian but her life has not provided her proof of such….and sending her to any religious school was not an option and would have created more problems. Country Day, Eagle, required academic excellence she does not have. Transferring to Verona, Middleton, or the ever white Waunakee were size wise not much of a difference, just less minority and poor students, which was not our issue. I am ill prepared for homeschooling and her struggles academically were going to make virtual schooling impossible. So what were my choices? What I would like to see is some smaller HS options, some schools within a school, an art charter or just a smaller atmosphere for kids not comfortable in a large stressful campus. And sorry I find the Backyards X3 kids an absolute joke, waste of money and just another way to show videos at school!!! It does not reduce the size of the school. Unless your child is delinquent, Christian (or OK pretending to be Catholic), or academically advanced….what are all these choices you’re speaking of? I support public schools and believe we should continue to support and make them better…..but the Board seems trapped in fear of branching out to innovative choices….like school within a school or smaller Art Charter options. There has been talk and talk and talk about these options…..been here 12 years and participated on many committees and communication panels and I am just tired of talk. We do need choices, so as a public school system lets create them within our own boundaries and within our own staff and budget.

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