Lessons From a 25-Year-Old Governance Reform

Last week I gave the fall lecture to the UW-Oshkosh African-American Studies Program. The title? From Bold Experiment to Status Quo: The Policy Evolution of America’s First Urban School Voucher Program. The lecture was based on a journal article, some previous talks I have given, and my broad attempt to make sense of 25 years of school voucher policy in Milwaukee.

My research question is appropriately broad: Has two-plus decades of school vouchers changed Milwaukee education for the better, or simply changed Milwaukee education?   When I first start working with vouchers there was not much research to go on, but today Milwaukee’s voucher policy is one of the better-studied experiments in public governance reform. Hence, there is a lot to be learned from it. First and foremost is the importance of articulating the purpose of a governance reform from day one. It is so hard to simply conclude that voucher policy works or does not because different audiences view voucher policies in radically different ways. I could make a plausible case that school vouchers are any of the following:

  • A market-based education reform
  • A cost saving privatization effort
  • A political movement
  • A social justice movement
  • A subsidy for private religious schools
  • An attack on public education

If policymakers and the public cannot even agree on what Milwaukee voucher policy really is, it is unlikely that agreement on their efficacy will ever exist. But that does not mean there are not lessons. First, the Milwaukee experience shows that voucher policies will lead to the creation of some great schools, and some awful ones. Policies that make it relatively easy to open new schools will result in a large number of school closures. Most obviously, voucher policies will be controversial. And any academic impact will be modest at best.

But for me, the biggest lesson from Milwaukee’s voucher experience is the policy paralysis it created. So much energy has been devoted to fighting for or against voucher policies that the larger issue of addressing low-urban academic achievement has gone unaddressed. In other words, there has been an opportunity cost from the prolonged voucher battle.

What to do about it? At least in Milwaukee, I think normalization is the answer. There is a path towards a unified funding and accountability structure that begins with recognizing both MPS’ and the MPCP’s legitimacy as part of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure. I am probably naïve and it probably will not happen, but at the very least I am hopeful the Milwaukee case will serve as a lesson for other public governance reforms. The lesson? Successful governance reforms require unified goals, public buy-in, cooperative implementation, and regular realistic performance assessments.

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