MJS On Vouchers…The Stalking Horse For Charters?

Eduwonk’s colleague New Donkey and Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum are already all over the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel series on the school voucher program in Milwaukee. Articles here and here and don’t miss the sidebars. (The Wash. Post also has a front-page story today about the voucher program in D.C.)

Milwaukee is enormously important to the voucher debate. For starters, the program was enacted right when the Chubb and Moe book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools began the reframing of the school choice debate toward a presentation that emphasized both equity and markets (that it was published by Brookings was symbolically important). Lost in the story of Milwaukee was that while much of the money behind it was from conservative sources, a lot of lefties were taking it to advance the issue there. And, Milwaukee was the first real publicly funded voucher program. So what happens there carries substantive and symbolic weight.

But, as the MJS series shows, what’s happening there is a good illustration that school improvement, no matter how you slice it, is hard work and that there are few shortcuts. The voucher schools are not a panacea and the notion that urban private and parochial schools are the educational Ferrari to the public school Pinto is overstated.

How much? We’ll we can’t really know and that’s a major problem. Though they often champion standards and accountability for the public schools, a lot of voucher supporters, the Bush Administration prominent amongst them, go silent when it comes to the program design of voucher programs (see the Post story on D.C.). Pluralistic delivery of public education requires ground rules that are clear, transparent, and uniform. It’s worth noting that nine of the voucher schools wouldn’t even allow reporters from MJS in to have a look around. That, along with problems documented in the articles, is a pretty stunning lack of public accountability.

However, if you look at the direction things are going in Milwaukee, essentially some efforts from almost all quarters to increase accountability, it’s not hard to envision a situation a decade or so from now where these voucher programs end up looking a lot more like good charter school programs in the sense that they have more oversight, “authorizers” take action against low-performers, and there are common metrics for standards, transparency, and accountability. Interesting to think what a good charter authorizer like a Jim Goenner from Central Michigan or Greg Richmond formally of Chicago Public Schools would do if given oversight/authority for the schools receiving voucher money in Milwaukee…

Though the dead-enders will fight it, the reality is that more choice is coming to education. Considering the generally slow pace of policy changes like this, the success voucher proponents have enjoyed over the past 15 years is pretty remarkable (multiple programs, more pending, several key legal victories including a landmark SCOTUS ruling) and speaks to this trend. But, accountability in these voucher programs is a huge and still largely unaddressed problem.

There are some lessons for these voucher programs in the experience so far with charters. In fact, perhaps rather than the common charge that charter schools are a stalking horse for vouchers is backwards and it’s really the other way around. Vouchers are the stalking horse for charters. Key characteristics of good charter school programs (good authorizing, transparency and public accountability, minimal but effective regulation, etc…) would take the sharp edges off of vouchers and also reorient these programs toward providing good public education in a community rather than today’s public v. private debate. And, when the broader public starts engaging in this debate they’re likely to wonder why such measures are not in place now…

Also, New Donkey nails the distinction between vouchers and charters, namely that the latter assumes a role for public oversight that the former does not. This is a major issue. First, because as the MJS notes pointedly:

Parental choice by itself does not assure quality. Some parents pick bad schools – and keep their children in them long after it is clear the schools are failing. This has allowed some of the weakest schools in the program to remain in business.

As an aside, this is actually an enormous issue lurking just below the surface of the charter movement. Does parental choice trump government oversight? Voucher proponents say yes, some charter supporters (those who, as a rule, also support vouchers) say yes, too, but others, Eduwonk among them, say no, it does not, because public money is involved.

This tension in the charter movement — put crudely, a tension between more and less libertarian factions — is currently being papered over in no small part because of the relentless and often tendentious attacks on charter schooling that are currently all the rage. In fact, if public education’s self-anointed defenders were actually serious about making all this work and not just protecting today’s power arrangements, they’d be actively finding ways to make common cause with the public oversight faction of the charter community (instead a lot of educators in that faction end up constantly scratching their heads trying to figure out how they became a “union-buster”, “enemy of public schools” or, worse yet in education parlance, “conservative”).

Update: Concerning public accountability, one reader writes:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m not defending these voucher schools, or any schools that hide from legitimate public oversight. But I’ve spent years now working on projects that required interviews with school personnel, site visits, documentation from the central office, etc., etc. And if you think that refusing to submit to outside evaluation is specifically or even primarily a problem of private/voucher schools, you’re nuts. There’s no stonewaller like the public school stonewaller. Administrative assistants are the worst. And don’t give me all that FERPA crap, either; they just don’t want people snooping around.

That’s a fair enough point, it’s not just a voucher school problem (though not every public school stonewalls either). But voucher supporters never said that they’d do as well as the public schools, they always said they’d do better…and besides, “they do it, too” isn’t much of an argument.

3 thoughts on “MJS On Vouchers…The Stalking Horse For Charters?

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