Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers made some headlines the other day grousing about the expansion of school choice. His critique was admittedly more "run-of-the-mill," but his conclusion was both specious and brash. In Evers' memo he said, "To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20 year old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong."
Certainly, we've heard arguments about how voucher schools have problems with accountability, they score flat on standardized tests, or that expanding the program would have an attenuating effect on the funding of public schools. But nobody of real public standing has actually suggested that the program itself was immoral, a suggestion that would inculpate parents, teachers, legislators, and whole organizations.
From Evers' perspective, spending money on a defunct program that could have been spent to fund public education is immoral because it harms the children left in public schools. The argument is simple in an Occam's Razor sort of way, but it's also very fallacious.
The first premise of Evers' argument is that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) has shown no student achievement in 20 years. This credibility of this premise is vitally important to finish the rest of Evers' argument.
What Evers doesn't tell us is that students in MPCP, according to the University of Minnesota, graduate at rates 19.5% higher than students at MPS. This is huge problem for Evers, something he has to explain. Sure, standardized testing shows that students at MPCP and MPS score more equivalently in subjects like math and reading, but the single most important indicator of student achievement is not WKCE scores; it's graduation rates.
When applying for a job, an employer doesn't ask if you took the WKCE, but whether you graduated from high school. Evers purposely swept MPCP's graduation rates under the rug in order to show that the 20 year program didn't justify its own existence. What Tony Evers did was not only deliberate, but it was fraudulent.
Evers' second premise, although not explicit, is that funding choice schools comes at the expense of funding public schools. Imagine a teeter-totter where one seat goes up only when the other end goes down. This is how Evers sees funding distribution for choice and public schools, which is erroneous. As McIlheran points out, funding for choice schools doesn't "come out of a public schools' pile." They are funded entirely apart much like the funding for state patrol and tech colleges. The problem isn't so much that public schools are seeing a cut, but that choice schools are seeing an expansion.
In his memo, Evers complained that the legislature was considering bills that exempted voucher schools from taking the WKCE; he complained they were removing income eligibility requirements; he complained they were expanding school choice into other cities; and he complained that they considered giving vouchers to disabled children. With the exception of taking the WKCE, each of Evers' objections were really grumblings about expanding school choice period. At the end of the memo, Evers says, "I urge you to restore funding for public schools and work collaboratively to improve the quality of all Milwaukee schools before considering any voucher expansion."
I underlined the last part for emphasis. Evers thinks we should continue waiting for public schools to get their act together before we consider expanding the school choice program. Someone should ask him how long we're supposed to wait until real reform occurs. About a dozen or so studies from different universities have shown that the closer voucher schools are to public schools, the better those public schools tend to perform. That alone shows that school choice is not harmful to children in public schools. Then we factor in that students in MPCP are graduating at rates 19.5% higher than their public school counterparts. Together, we have a solid reason to expand the program beyond the confines of Milwaukee.
Evers should stop pretending that his opposition to school choice is about the children in Milwaukee. If it were, then expanding school choice to all children should be the goal. What it comes down to is that bureaucrats like Evers think parents aren't perceptive enough to figure out what school is best for their children. As a community, we need to send a message to bureaucrats like Evers that we're tired of them obstructing education reform simply because it didn't originate in public schools.