While driving home from Marquette’s voucher forum yesterday I could not help but wonder what year it was. Statements were made about segregation, discrepancies in special needs services, the need for increased accountability, funding differences, picking and choosing students, research credibility, the funding of systems vs. the funding of students, ALEC, the legitimacy of parental decision making, expulsion rates, etc. The only signal that this discussion was not occurring in 2005 was that reference was made to MPCP students taking the Wisconsin state exams, and nobody brought up the now non-existent MPCP enrollment cap.
This is not to say the discussion was not interesting. It was. Both Scott Jensen and Julie Underwood forcefully defended their positions, and there is much value to having policy discussions such as these. There were a couple of specific issues brought up that merit further elaboration:
- Jensen and Underwood gave very different versions of the birth of the MPCP. Jensen was specific, referencing a discussion between Rep. Polly Williams and Gov. Tommy Thompson, while Underwood framed voucher policy through a discussion of the Jim Crow-era segregation academies and ALEC model legislation. In reality the origins of the MPCP are far more complex than a single meeting or piece of model legislation. You can read my take here if interested, and I recommend Jack Dougherty’s More than One Struggle for another perspective. My main takeaway here is that one’s views of the MPCP’s origins (as well as its trajectory) are dependent on their vision for public education.
- Jensen stated, “By the time they [MPCP pupils] reach high school, they’re outperforming their peers on the ACT… They are more likely to graduate from high school if they stay in the program. They are more likely to go on to college and they’re more likely to graduate than their peers who’re similarly situated.” Underwood responded that Jensen was picking and choosing statistics that make the MPCP look favorable. I will just say that Jensen’s claims need more explanation. It is true that MPCP students scored higher on the ACT last year than MPS students. But that does not mean the private schools, much less the voucher program itself, are the reason. One, we do not know how long the voucher students have been in the MPCP. Two, we have no idea where the students were academically when they first attended a MPCP school. Third, there is a significant amount of school and sector switching in Milwaukee, making the conclusion that MPCP ACT advantages are due to students’ cumulative experiences in the MPCP questionable at best. Simply, the ACT comparisons are snapshots that in and of themselves say nothing regarding the impact MPCP schools, or voucher policy, are having on student performance. Jensen is on target with graduation rates, but the high-attrition rates (56 percent) of MPCP high school pupils need also be discussed.
- Underwood brought up the differences in the special needs population in the MPCP and MPS. Nobody debates that these differences are real, but the reasons they exist are worthy of attention. It is not because MPCP schools get to pick and choose their students (this is clear in voucher law). As I wrote early this year, “part of the reason is funding, part of the reason is the difference between a school system and a system of schools, and part of the reason is a lack of facilities.” The School Choice Demonstration Project also did a nice little paper on the issue.
- Jensen stated that the MPCP saves money because the value of a voucher is $7,353, compared to around $14,000 for MPS. These two numbers are not comparable. I argue the appropriate comparison is the MPS revenue limit, which is about $10,450.18. If you feel like going down that rabbit hole, I write more about it here, but like seemingly every aspect of the MPCP the reality is more complex than the talking point.
Back to the big picture. Both Jenson and Underwood spoke of the need for accountability, better analytics, and more people across all education sectors to step-up and realize that every child deserves a great education. Both were well meaning and sincere. Yet I was a bit disheartened by the whole thing. Solving the problems facing Milwaukee’s education system requires moving beyond decades-old debates that will never be resolved (see bullet points above) and onto confronting some uncomfortable realities.
First, Milwaukee’s public education system is fragmented to the point where enacting meaningful positive change resulting in aggregate improvement is nearly impossible. The reality of competing systems that are funded and regulated differently is a barrier ensuring that positive moves in MPS or the MPCP will leave thousands of children unaffected. A unified governance framework (which threatens just about everyone) is a must.
Second, vouchers have not dramatically improved educational outcomes in Milwaukee. To their credit, both Jensen and Underwood stated that choice is not a panacea, but truly moving forward means not allowing small pieces of positive data to obfuscate the larger reality. This does not mean that voucher policy should be branded as a success or failure. That is a counterproductive premise because of my third point…
…MPCP schools are a permanent and legitimate part of Milwaukee’s public education system. Saying we should just get rid of vouchers is about as helpful as saying we should just get rid of MPS. The MPCP is not the problem and MPS is not the problem. But both must be part of the solution.
Fourth, the quality of Milwaukee’s education system is a function of the quality of Milwaukee’s publicly funded schools. The school and not the system is the appropriate unit of analysis. There is a growing body of organizations in Milwaukee that grasp this, but funding and regulatory incoherence is a barrier to comparing and improving schools across sectors.
So there are my reactions. When I attend functions like these I am always impressed by how much people care about education in Milwaukee. There is no shortage of talent or passion in the city’s education policy community.