Tag: Milwaukee

DOJ vs. School Choice

Claiming that private schools in Milwaukee are discriminating against students with disabilities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) demanding that private schools participating in the Milwaukee school choice program comply with Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As Professor Patrick Wolf explains over at Education Next, the DOJ is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law.

Wolf is part of a team of researchers that has studied the Milwaukee school choice program over five years. Their statistical analysis “confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage—not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race—was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.” This is exactly what the law requires. Wisconsin law forbids discrimination on the basis of disability and requires schools participating in the voucher program to accept students on a random basis. 

Moreover, the DOJ is wrong on the law in treating private schools participating in the program as though they were government contractors. As Wolf explains:

Private organizations normally are exempt from Title II of ADA but the DOJ argues that the law applies to private schools in the MPCP because the government is contracting with them to provide a public service (the education of K-12 students). This claim flies in the face of the facts and case-law surrounding the program. The voucher program does not involve any contracts, of any kind, between any government organization and the participating private schools. Students need to meet certain eligibility restrictions to participate in the program, as do interested private schools. Once both are deemed eligible by the state, students choose schools and government funds flow to the private schools based on the choices families have made and consistent with the laws governing the program, not based on any “contract.” In fact, the Wisconsin State Statute that governs the MPCP, §119.23, is entirely separate from Wisconsin State Statute §119.235 entitled “Contracts with Private Schools and Agencies.” Nothing could make the point clearer that the MPCP is not a case of government contracting for education services.

Wolf suspects that the DOJ’s letter came as a result of the Wisconsin DPI’s report that 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability. Since the DPI is not authorized to collect that information, they estimated the number of students with disabilities using the number of choice students given accommodations on the state accountability exam. However, as Wolf explains, that is a highly flawed proxy since only a minority of students with disabilities are given such accommodations. Wolf’s team of researchers estimated that the number of choice students with disabilities between 7.5 and 14.6 percent, with their best estimate being 11.4 percent.

The DOJ’s overreach may be unsurprising in light of other recent scandals, but it also sets a terrible precedent. Parents choosing to use their vouchers at private educational institutions do not render those institutions “government contractors” any more than grocery stores become “government contractors” when citizens use their EBT cards to purchase food there. The Obama administration’s unlawful and misguided attempt to hamper school choice programs with additional red tape should be vigorously resisted.

More on Milwaukee Vouchers

Joseph Lawler and Philip Klein of the American Spectator have some helpful comments on my earlier post about the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a recent report on Milwaukee’s voucher program. I had stated that the city’s public schools cost taxpayers about 50% more than the voucher program, and Lawler and Klein note that it’s really more like 100%. They’re right. The approved FY2010 budget is $1.073 billion and enrollment is 82,444 – for a per pupil figure of just over $13,000/pupil. The voucher is worth only $6,607.

My mistake was to rely on my recollection of the MPS spending figure used in a 2009 fiscal impact analysis of the voucher program, which turns out not to have included all the district’s revenue sources.  

But while I’m following up on this, I’d like to re-emphasize the final point of my earlier post, to which the Spectator writers did not draw particular attention: the Milwaukee voucher program is not a test of free market education. As I noted earlier, its total enrollment is legislatively limited to about 20,000 students, and in the past that limit was much lower. Additionally, there is a rigid price control on voucher schools – the voucher must be accepted as full payment, even though it is worth only half as much as public schools spend per pupil.

Think carefully about this. What entrepreneur would enter an industry whose total customer base is confined to a few thousand families in a single U.S. city and which has a rigid price control set at half the spending level of a government protected monopoly operating in that same city?

That is not test of market forces.

Failures in Ed. Policy Analysis—Misunderstanding Milwaukee

To the extent education policy commentary actually affects policy, it has the potential to do great good or great harm. Several recent commentaries in this field fall into the latter camp, and it’s important to understand why – so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.

The one I’ll discuss here is this blog post by Matthew Yglesias, in which he draws broad conclusions about the functioning of education markets from a recent study of a tiny school choice program in Milwaukee as well as from some older unspecified research [for the latter, Yglesias linked here, but the body of that page doesn’t discuss school choice]. The Milwaukee study is part of a vast literature. Over the past quarter century at least sixty-five studies have compared outcomes in public and private schools around the world, reporting 156 separate statistical findings.

The evidence of this literature is starkly one-sided. The vast preponderance of findings show private schools outperforming public schools after all the normal controls. What’s more, when we focus on the research comparing truly market-like systems to state-run school monopolies, the market advantage is found to be even more dramatic (see Figure 2 in the paper linked above). To draw policy opinions from a small, selective handful of those studies while ignoring the rest is policy malpractice, and it is dangerous to children.

Even the recent Milwaukee result described by Yglesias as a failure shows voucher students in private schools performing as well as public school students who receive roughly 50% more government funding. How is a program that produces similar academic results to the status quo at a much lower cost to taxpayers a failure? And what of the research suggesting that students in the Milwaukee voucher program graduate at higher rates than those in public schools?

More importantly from a long term policy perspective, how is a program limited to 20,000 or so children in a single city, being served almost entirely by non-profit entities, a test of market education? Would Apple have spent hundreds of millions developing the iPhone or the iPad if its market were limited to the same customer base? Of course not. The dynamism, diversity and innovation we have come to expect from competitive markets in other fields relies on the prospect of ultimately scaling up to serve mass audiences. Without the prospect of a large-scale return on investment, there is no incentive to invest in the first place.

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 4

A tax credit bill was recently proposed in South Carolina to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our closing comments appear below, and the previous installments are here and here and here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

Closing Comment

Thanks for the research and references, Andrew, but I don’t live in Milwaukee, Africa or India - I live and grew up in South Carolina, and I remember when my state resisted desegregation. I remember the news reports, white protests and rhetoric about new private schools, where white children would be “safe.” Attorney Tom Turnipseed, a repentant racist in Columbia, SC, fought to create those schools and now willingly admits his prejudiced motivation for doing so. That legacy needs to be acknowledged and those schools need to demonstrate that they’ve changed before many citizens will be comfortable with them.

Many white parents who didn’t send their children to private schools in those days simply couldn’t afford to do so without governmental assistance. An irony of American racism is that poor whites have also suffered, but have been culturally conditioned to not collaborate with or trust those of other colors who have common interests.

Having said that, let me keep my promise from my last installment of our dialogue. You noted that some private school parents of modest means have found ways to augment government funding for things like transportation and uniforms. I said that I wasn’t surprised, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being - and have done so for years without public funding of private schools. My wife and I did so when we were young, struggling parents.

Our sons attended V.V. Reid Kindergarten and Day Care in Columbia, SC - a 54 year old private facility sponsored by Reid Chapel AME Church. That predominately black school has a reputation for excellence and a long waiting list, and now includes an elementary school. The tuition was - and still is - considerable, but we paid it as a matter of parental choice. They also attended and graduated from public elementary, middle and high schools - now labeled as “failing” - and are now very successful men. They attended V.V. Reid with the children of physicians and attorneys and the children of janitors and cooks, but all of those children had one thing in common - their parents paid - and still pay - the full tuition. V.V. Reid does not accept any government funds and the current pastor, Rev. Norvell Goff, says that they aren’t seeking governmental funding and don’t support tuition tax credits and scholarships. As Rev. Goff said, “Parents who care will pay the price.”

That points to what most puzzles me about the fight to give private schools public money, allegedly to educate needy children. The idea’s most consistently strident uncompensated supporters in South Carolina are not those of modest means or progressive political mind set, but conservative legislators and interest groups who usually tell the needy to pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” and consistently oppose what they call “handouts” or “pork” for struggling communities. From health care to infrastructure to housing, they condemn governmental involvement in the private sector, but they make a remarkable exception for education. Could they have had a miraculous social epiphany on education, or could they possibly see a financial and social benefit for their constituents and neighbors that wouldn’t be rhetorically prudent in “selling” privatization to struggling families?

I’ll conclude our dialogue with that question, with thanksgiving that a bipartisan, biracial majority of our Senators killed South Carolina’s current privatization legislation last week, and with the wise and true words of SC Education Secretary Jim Rex - when businesses consider locating in South Carolina, they never ask, “How are your private schools.” Public education does matter. I’m also sure the issue isn’t entirely dead, so be blessed, take care, and we’ll chat next year.

***

The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

Closing Comment

You wrote that “dangerous buildings can… be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire…. The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment.”

Before they catch fire”? Nearly half of all children in South Carolina drop out before finishing high school. Nearly HALF! Public schooling is burning NOW. It’s been ablaze for decades, reducing countless children’s dreams to ashes. Having another meeting to discuss fire codes would be madness. We need to get a ladder to these kids today.

And “fixed expeditiously with will and commitment”? Spending per pupil has more than doubled in real terms over the past forty years. Two generations of would-be reformers have worked feverishly to improve the system, passing one education bill after another at the state and federal levels, and introducing countless revisions to the curriculum and teacher training policies. Class sizes have been reduced, teachers’ salaries have been raised. Short of ritual sacrifices, there is nothing that has not already been tried, repeatedly, to fix the public schools.
You wrote that “studies on the success of privatization… are a ‘wash’ – each of us can find support for our positions.” This is simply not true. As I’ve noted, the research findings comparing market to monopoly schooling all over the world favor markets by a margin of 15 to 1. That’s based on the most comprehensive literature review to date. Social science, while imperfect, is science. And on this point, it is unambiguous.

As for your statement that South Carolina significantly and systematically underfunds rural black districts along the I-95 corridor, I decided to check it out. Using this year’s data from South Carolina’s General Appropriations spending bill, I calculated the average expenditure per pupil: $11,815. For rural districts along the I-95 corridor, it comes to $11,743 – a difference of $72.

You’ve said that, in the wake of the civil war, some middle-class blacks excluded lower-class blacks from their private schools. If that’s true, I would certainly join you in lamenting their behavior. But who is guilty of this cruelty today? Who is currently trying to keep poor young blacks from getting easier access to private schools? The NAACP supports scholarships for low-income students to attend private colleges, but fiercely opposes the same practice at the elementary and high school levels. Who’s blocking the schoolhouse door now?

Fortunately, school choice is advancing despite such misguided opposition. There are dozens of choice programs around the nation, and the best among them are growing rapidly and with bi-partisan support. Some black leaders of your own generation, such as South Carolina Senator Robert Ford, have gotten on board. Even more of the next generation of black leaders, from Corey Booker in New Jersey to Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, are on board as well. And some of the most eloquent voices in support of educational freedom are beneficiaries of school choice.

Perhaps, if you talk with some of the tens of thousands of families benefitting from school choice around the country, you’ll be convinced to join them aboard the educational freedom train. It’s pulling out of the station regardless.

In closing, I’d like to thank you for participating in this exchange. I hope people on all sides of the debate have found it useful.

***

Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

Women’s Suffrage Abandoned. “Too Unpopular,” says Anthony.

Reversing his earlier support for private school choice in the District of Columbia, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews now calls for the end of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. Why? “Vouchers help [low income] kids, but not enough of them. The vouchers are too at odds with the general public view of education. They don’t have much of a future.”

So private school choice programs work, but because they are not growing quite fast enough for Mr. Mathews’ taste we should abandon the entire enterprise? Why keep striving for total victory when can seize defeat today!

The thing is, major social changes are usually, what’s the word… oh yes: hard. Susan B. Anthony co-founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869. She died in 1906 – 14 years, 5 months and five days before passage of the 19th Amendment. If a social reform is right and just, it will inspire reformers who will fight for it every bit as long as it takes.

And even those who decide what social reforms to support based on their popularity should take note that school choice programs are proliferating all over the country. And newer tax credit programs, such as Florida’s, Pennsylvania’s, and Arizona’s, are all growing at a faster rate than older voucher programs like the one in Milwaukee. More than that, the politics of school choice have already begun to change at the state level. While Democrats in Congress had no qualms slipping a shiv into the futures of 1,700 poor kids, more and more of their fellow party members at the state level are deciding to back educational freedom.