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.