Tony Evers: Trying to Throw High Heat at Voucher Schools

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Category: Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public

Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, has been making waves by going on the offensive against proposals to expand the use of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. In addition to what has been said in news stories such as this one in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I’d offer three thoughts that struck me as I read the lengthy memo Evers offered to members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance this week.

One: Legally and politically, this is almost surely idle thinking, but what if the private schools that are in Milwaukee’s voucher program had to face the same kind of consequences for getting weak results that charter schools and, of late, conventional public schools face?

Charter schools, which are independently operated, publicly funded schools, are generally given five-year contracts by a government body. (In Milwaukee, charter contracts are granted by the School Board, city government, or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.) It is not unusual for a charter school to be closed if it is not getting good results at the end of five years, or sometimes sooner.

In the conventional Milwaukee Public Schools system, school closings are becoming common. Tightening finances and declining enrollments are key reasons, but getting bad results is also a factor. And a list of schools, including several major high schools, are under orders, based on federal policies, to take steps such as overhauling their programs and staffs and getting new principals because of low student success.

Although the regulatory climate around voucher schools has gained significant muscle over the last decade, the accountability tools are still much different than those for the other kinds of schools. Basically, if a private school runs a relatively competent operation and parents decide to enroll their children and keep them there, the school can keep operating, no matter how poor its outcomes are. And, based on test scores released recently, some of them have very poor outcomes. But it is after all, a parental choice program and if parents choose to send their child to a lousy school, so be it.  

Evers argued in his memo that many of the voucher schools are really public schools in the sense that almost all of their money comes from public dollars. This year, in half of the 100-plus schools involved in the voucher program, 94% or more of the students were on vouchers that generally bring $6,442 per child to the school.    

Evers’ memo said, “A significant number of choice schools perform below the MPS average in reading and math. While this is also true for MPS schools, those schools are subject to federal and state sanctions and turnaround requirements. In light of this, the state may need to impose improvements requirements on consistently low-performing choice schools.”

He also wrote, “If the choice schools are really some kind of quasi-public schools, then in keeping with national efforts to turnaround struggling schools, it may be necessary to subject low-performing schools to financial sanctions, turnaround efforts or even closure.”

So what if a voucher school, every five years or so, had to get reauthorization to get public money, based on demonstrating it was operating a quality program? That would be interesting – and, frankly, some of them would definitely not survive.

There is such a screening operation now for private schools that want to join the voucher program, and it has effectively cut the flow of new choice schools to a trickle.

But politically, at least as of now, the Republican control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature has put all the momentum on the side of broadening the voucher program, not putting some clamps on it. Furthermore – I should warn you that I am not a lawyer, despite being employed by the Law School – there could be a complicated legal dispute if the state tried to impose orders on voucher schools to change their academic ways. In 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court approved inclusion of religious schools in the voucher program, one of the keys to the prevailing decision was the argument that the state would not become entangled in overseeing private schools in a program built around parent choice.

All this said, it is interesting to wonder what would happen if the heat was put on some of the weakest private schools the way heat is being put on conventional schools and charter schools.

Two: You could have a long discussion about the reasons and the exact data, but it is indisputable that MPS has a far larger share of Milwaukee’s special education students than the private schools do. Evers’ report put forward some figures I had not seen before.

“The data shows a significant enrollment decline in MPS among regular education students, but not corresponding change among special education students,” he said. Specifically, over nine years, the number of special education students in MPS rose slightly – from 15,912 in 2001-02 to 16,078 this year, an increase of 166. But the  number of MPS students overall fell during that period from 97,762 to 80,923, a decline of 16,839.

From 2001-02 to this year, the percentage of MPS students who disabilities rose from 16.3% to 19.9%. For private schools in the city, Evers’ data put the total at less than 1% of enrollment. Voucher school advocates say the real figure is higher than that, but that often students in private schools are not given the special education label.

Even if you think MPS calls too many kids special ed students and the voucher schools have more than the official figures, it is inescapable to see how much special education is increasingly influencing what goes on in MPS, and how big a difference there is on that score between the voucher schools and MPS. 

Three: It’s worth noting that Evers is fighting the voucher expansion proposals so actively and openly. Such aggressive action hasn’t always been the practice of state school superintendents. With school aid being cut so strongly and with the war still raging over eliminating most of the collective bargaining power of teachers, sources have said Evers has been getting lobbied by public school advocates to take a stronger role in fighting Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans. It looks like he is taking that advice.

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3 Responses to “Tony Evers: Trying to Throw High Heat at Voucher Schools”

  1. Tom Kamenick Says:

    On your first point, specifically on how voucher schools in Milwaukee underperform compared to regular MPS schools, the comparison is not an apt one.

    As you note in your post, in half of the voucher schools, nearly all of the students were choice students. Because of the low income limits on vouchers, by definition the choice students are poor students. On average, poor students are, well, poorer students (in the other sense of the word) than middle-class and wealthy students.

    In other words, you would expect a school populated almost exclusively with students from very-low income families to perform at a lower level than a school populated with students from a mix of socio-economic students, even if the quality of the voucher school itself was higher.

    To be useful, such a comparison would need to focus on whether students from poor backgrounds do better, worse, or the same in voucher schools as they do in MPS schools.

  2. Jeff Pertl Says:

    The first comment is exactly right. However, the comparison of student performance in the Evers memo is between low-income MPS and choice students. On average, they do about the same in reading, but MPS low-income kids still do better in math.

  3. Bruce Thompson Says:

    On point two, John Witte and Patrick Wolfe in their commentary in today’s Journal Sentinel estimate that about 9% of choice students have a learning disability, about half of MPS’ 18%. Based on anecdotal experience, this seems about right to me.

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