Breaking down Wisconsin Gubernatorial Candidate Positions on Vouchers

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a nice overview of the policy positions of the eight politicians vying for the Democrat gubernatorial nomination August 14th. I am particularly interested in candidate views on school vouchers, and unfortunately, most of the stated policy positions are out of step with reality. For example, Matt Flynn says he would “require voucher schools to accept students with disabilities until systems are phased out.” How exactly can you require schools to do something they are already required to do? Voucher accepting schools cannot screen for special needs, and though there are real differences in the number of special needs pupils and the severity of their needs pupils in public and voucher accepting schools, the issue of screening is a matter of law.

Mike McCabe states he would immediately end the voucher system. In Milwaukee this would create an immediate crisis. Ninety-three private schools with 29,769 students enroll over half of their students via the MPCP. It is not a stretch to say these schools (and probably many more) would no longer be viable without the MPCP. Ending the MPCP means closing schools, gutting a part of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure, and creating chaos for both families and school systems. Racine similarly has a large number of private schools highly reliant on vouchers. Simply, McCabe’s position could be implemented statewide, but is an impossible one in Milwaukee and Racine.

Most of the other candidates advocate phasing out the voucher programs by stopping new enrollees from attending, which would essentially phase vouchers out one grade level at a time. This position obviously comes from a good place; candidates do not want to disrupt lives by kicking kids out of school, but will nonetheless create chaos in Milwaukee, especially in K-8 schools. Schools have fixed costs, eliminating a grade level at a time is not viable beyond a year or two for the huge number of MPCP schools highly reliant on vouchers. On average, each K-8 grade enrolls about 10% of the total MPCP K-8 student population. Assuming this holds more-or-less true at the school level, MPCP schools will see 10% of their revenues disappear each year. You combine this with high mobility (which exists across all sectors in Milwaukee education), and you will see school closures in a year or two, and a full-blown crisis soon thereafter.

The only candidate with a plausible plan is Tony Evers, who says he “Wants to phase out four voucher systems over time, unless Legislature passes a significant funding increase for public schools and adds accountability regulations for voucher schools.” Such a phase out would create the problems I just mentioned, but at the very least Evers expresses an openness to compromise on the issue. I can only speculate this openness comes from his awareness of the reality in Milwaukee based on his work at DPI.

I am the first to admit that voucher programs have their flaws, heck I continue to take heat for not seeing the merit or urgency in the statewide and special needs voucher programs. And I wrote a whole book on the practical problems created in Milwaukee due to governance fragmentation. But on balance I was disappointed that so many candidates are taking a position divorced from the reality of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure. Recognizing the problems as it exists is a necessary step for positive action. It is likely these positions are merely primary politics. It is also likely the candidate with the most reasonable response and the most understanding of the MPCP will win the primary. Meaning, the MPCP is not going away. But still, can we improve this debate?


Rethinking How We Categorize Schools

The Wisconsin State Journal put out an informative editorial entitled Don’t Confuse Charter Schools With Voucher Schools in which they declared “Every charter school in Wisconsin is a public school.” The paper’s goal was to clear up misinformation in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, including the use of the term private charter schools. There is nothing incorrect in the editorial, but I do wonder if it is time we in Wisconsin start thinking differently about how we categorize schools.

Currently we focus on the legal definition. Under state statute district run schools are public. Charter schools authorized by districts are public. Charter schools authorized by entities other than school districts like the City of Milwaukee are public. Schools participating in the Milwaukee, Racine, or Statewide voucher program are private. No doubt part of the reasons charter school supporters gravitate to these definitions is that public schools of choice are more politically accepted on both sides of the aisle.

I argue, however, that the reality of schooling in Wisconsin is more complex than the traditional public/private continuum allow. Charter schools are very different than traditional public schools in terms of what they are required to report, their hiring policies, their curriculum, their governance structures, etc. Independent charters are even more different in that they are not overseen by a democratically elected school board. True, charters and traditional public schools are publicly funded. But then again, so are voucher schools. Twenty-four schools In the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) enroll all of their students via vouchers. Ninety-three schools enroll over half their pupils via the MPCP. The story is different in the statewide voucher program where only four schools enroll over half their pupils via vouchers. No school in the statewide program is 100 percent reliant on voucher revenues.

I would argue instead of public and private we should talk about publicness. This involves asking a few simple questions:

  • Is the school subject to open records and open meeting laws?
  • Are school staff public employees?
  • Is the school 100 percent reliant on public funds?
  • Could the school exist without public funds?
  • Is the school overseen by a democratically elected school board?
  • Is the school overseen by a public institution?

A natural outgrowth of placing schools on a public/private continuum is the ability to regulate in a way that is more targeted and more conducive to school-level success within its chosen governance model. A more nuanced understanding of what it means to be public could also help us move past the very debate the Wisconsin State Journal was trying to clear up. Does the fact that charters are technically public really matter to people who do not accept that they are? Does the fact that 100 percent voucher funded schools are technically private really matter to those who want more public school style regulations on these schools? As public education systems evolve so should the way we categorize schools. It is another way to ensure efforts to improve performance are based on the reality of the system we have rather than a system that no longer exists.

Worrying Times

One of the great things about being a professor is having some time in the summer to spend with family, focus on research and writing, and to catch up on reading. These days I find myself particular interested in books about the Weimar Republic, and the transition from the U.S.S.R. to Putin’s Russia. I am interested in these topics not because I think we are on the path to fascism or totalitarianism, but rather, because the United States is in a transition period. I, like so many, am struggling to make sense of the chaos and confusion. I find it helpful to understand how other societies functioned and changed during transition periods.

To be clear I have no answers, just reflection. But I am worried for a few reasons. First, truth no longer seems to matter in public life. I am not talking about issues like climate change, but rather the day-to-day willingness of so many to simply ignore obvious lies. This seems to be leading to a day where we just dismiss lying as something all politicians do. I fear new generations of voters will just expect dishonesty out of their public officials.

Second and related, I fear politics will be seen as an unserious enterprise reserved for celebrities and others famous for things totally disconnected from politics. It is not just Trump, I cringe when I hear Oprah or other celebrities floated as candidates. There is lasting damage when a generation views politics as something reserved for other elites. Tocqueville noted that America was unique in the degree to which regular people were engaged in civic affairs. I do not think we as a nation can afford to lose that.

Third, I worry that public service will be seen as an ideological choice. One must either choose to serve the deep state working against the people, or resist the tyranny of government by working in politics or the private sector. Our bureaucracy does not work if it seen as captured by one political party or ideological agenda. The demonizing of expertise and administrative institutions will have real negative consequence on government legitimacy for generations.

Fourth, I hate the language of winning. Being a part of a society is not a win or lose proposition. Something that is good for Democrats does not have to be bad for Republicans, or vice-versa. When the standards for political support becomes nothing more than it angers my opponents, we create an environment where any policy of mutual benefit is impossible, and where ideological consistency collapses.

My biggest fear is that the chaos and confusion will make people check out. I do not care where anyone stands on the political spectrum (my students often ask me where I stand, I tell them to google me, which just makes it that much more confusing), when people stop paying attention bad things can occur. The lasting damage done to government performance and legitimacy in these uncertain times will likely be a result of the gradual accumulation of events and actions, not one big thing.

I really am not pessimistic. Our system of government is resilient, and we are buoyed by the relative health of local government and a strong civil society. I also see students wholly committed to improving their communities on a daily basis, which gives me hope. But I also feel our system is unmoored right now, and understanding why is worth my time.

What Does it Mean for a Milwaukee Education Reform to Work?

Last week I tweeted a link to this op-ed calling for a Milwaukee Public School (MPS) education czar, quipping that “A move like this that only deals with MPS will not work.” I was asked, quite fairly, how I defined “work.” My standing position is that any reform dealing with only one sector ignores the broader context of Milwaukee’s education scene and is thus insufficient. But does insufficient mean not worthwhile? Am I being myopic?

First, on the specific idea of an MPS education czar, I am generally skeptical of the great man theory of education reform. Time and time again we have seen the hot reformer of the day (remember Michelle Rhee in D.C.) come and go. It does not mean Rhee or others were not good leaders, it just means that taking the reigns of a large public school system and creating positive sustainable change is a larger task than can be accomplished by one person, no matter how talented. Enough of MPS’ problems are structural at this point that it is naïve to think it is simply a failure of leadership. That does not mean the MPS board is perfect, but it does mean that replacing a democratic institution requires more than just saying we will find a great leader to be a czar. It requires broad buy-in, resources, support from all levels of government, and a whole lot of patience. We could install the greatest education leader there is at MPS and I would not expect success.

More to the point, what does work mean? To me, a Milwaukee reform that works is one that meets the following conditions:

  • It retains a democratic component for purposes of legitimacy and accountability;
  • It creates funding and regulatory equity for all publicly funded Milwaukee schools;
  • Any school-level incentives and consequences apply across sectors;
  • It is adequately funded (what that means could be another blog post);
  • It addresses structural problems, including the lasting impacts of declining enrollment in MPS, legacy costs, underused facilities, across sector records retention, etc.;
  • It is built on the notion that the MPCP, MPS, and 2R Charter sectors are permanent necessary parts of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure;
  • Stability in regulation, reporting requirements, and performance measures;
  • Includes and independent research component with full and equitable access to fiscal and performance measures across sectors; and
  • Has broad horizontal (across school sectors and political interests in Milwaukee) and vertical (across levels of government and state political interests) buy-in.

I cannot guarantee a reform meeting these conditions would be successful. But, it would create the conditions in which broad impactful change is possible. And to bury the lede, that is what I mean by a reform that works, it is one that makes positive change to the system as a whole possible. Currently there is so much fragmentation, and so much switching between schools and sectors that a reform focused on one will likely fail. Perhaps I have grown cynical as I for a long time was of the position that something that does even a little good is worthwhile. But I shudder when I think of the wasted political capital and inflicted trauma of a reform effort that is single-sectored focused and thus not broadly sustainable in a system as fragmented as Milwaukee’s.

Reflecting on MPAC

I am excited and humbled to be taking over as MPAC’s president. The 2018 meeting in Chicago was another reminder of how special MPAC is. I am lucky to have the opportunity to collaborate with our talented board members, conference hosts, and attendees to keep building on MPAC’s sturdy foundation. Last night I took some time to reflect on what I want MPAC to mean. Broadly, I want it to be place where we address the pathologies of our field. What do I mean by pathologies? Well, if you have not read Alisdair Roberts’ recent Medium piece you should. While it is easy (and even satisfying at times) to complain about these pathologies, it is harder to address them. A first step is articulating some core propositions to guide us.

We will be inclusive and diverse

PA is a sprawling field, yet it is easy to get stuck in narrow lanes of methods, topics, and thinking. A regional conference can be a place where we embrace new methodological approaches, expand the boundaries of our field, and elevate new voices that are underrepresented in current hierarchies. My goal this summer is to build an advisory board that reflects the diversity of the field. And of course MPAC will continue to be a place where bias and harassment has no place.

We will be constructive

Attendees should leave MPAC with something real. I do not mean water bottles. I mean an improved research paper, a broader scholarly network, a new teaching resource, or new friends. There are many academic conferences PA scholars and students can attend. Coming to MPAC is a choice, and I want to ensure a culture that creates tangible value for attendees.

We will be regionally focused

This past year I had my travel funding cut to $400 annually. I cannot cover the cost of ASPA’s registration fee, much less travel and a hotel room. My situation is not unique, which places a huge premium on a PA conference where travel is easy and fees are reasonable. Having Midwest PA scholars disengage from the broader research community because of the financial struggles of universities is simply not acceptable. There is so much good work going on it so many places that deserves a venue. MPAC can be that venue. 

We will be solution focused

A formative moment for me as a PA scholar was hearing a prominent scholar declare that Public Administration is not what ails government, politics is. He argued that only a change in our politics will improve our government. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. The pursuit of research with practical relevance to the problems facing government agencies and nonprofit organizations can improve performance, efficiency, and citizen acceptance. Theory building and macro-level studies on the big issues in PA can similarly help us understand how and why solutions to societal problems can be effective. My predecessor described MPAC as punk rock, meaning we strive to find a way rather than dwell on barriers. I agree. 

We will be egalitarian 

I was able to work on the program this year and made the decision to not include titles next to presenter names. I doubt anyone noticed, but I hope it demonstrates a commitment to focusing on the quality of the work rather than one’s title. Whether you are a student, a practitioner, or a full professor, MPAC will be a space where you can expect open-minded engagement and constructive dialogue.

If you have thoughts, disagree with anything, want to be involved, or simply have ideas on how to improve MPAC, please please please please reach out to me:, @fordm10.   In five years so many passionate people created something special. I vow to keep the train moving forward.

Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Local Governments

What makes good government? I would argue good government is competent, representative of the people, proactive, and capable of leading in a manner that reflects the values of the governed. A good governing board is one that exhibits the positive group dynamics that allow the board to serve as a bridge between the governed and the government. But what happens if governing boards lack the capacity to serve as that bridge?

I am thinking about this today after presenting research at the 2018 MPAC conference in Chicago. Doug Ihrke and I surveyed 147 city council members serving Wisconsin municipalities with more than 10,000 residents. We asked about a lot, but today’s presentation focused on one open-ended question: In your words, what is the biggest challenge your city currently faces?

The answers were varied, below are a few responses that reflect the balance of what city council members shared:

  • Desire not to raise taxes amid revenue sharing cuts
  • The unrealistic levy limits imposed by the state along with the expenditure restraint program
  • Reduced revenue sharing and broad brushed levy limits imposed by the state
  • Dealing with State imposed levy limits. You should not have to go to referendum every time a budgetary issue comes up that does not meet levy limit requirements.
  • Being able to provide a consistent level of service within the tax limitations imposed by the state.
  • Operating within the levy limit without cutting services or level of services
  • The restraints the state has put on us will eventually effect quality/sustainability of our work force

This was not what I expected. Upwards of 90 percent of city council members answered this open-ended question the same way, referring to state imposed revenue caps, or state imposed limits on local control. Though it is not entirely surprising that city council members would want more revenue sources and power, it was surprising to see little to no mention of substantive governing issues like services delivery, social issues, immigration, or policymaking.

Instead we saw council members focused on the prerequisites to good governing: Resources and discretion. Of course money and local control does not guarantee effectiveness. But, I’d argue, a local governing body cannot be proactive about implementing services in-line with residents’ values if they are wholly focused on securing the resources that make proactive governance possible. I do not think for a second that council members do not care about more substantive issues, I simply think most lack the luxury to focus on these issues. Something will need to give as the status quo is not sustainable.

What Does a Good Governance Model Look Like?

I put this quick summary together for something else, but I think it is worth a share:

An effective governance model has several features. First, it is fully transparent. All stakeholders should have access to organizational structures and processes. Second, it is understood. Both those serving within an organization and the clientele of the organization should have a full understanding of how the organization functions. Third, it fosters efficient communication. Different committees and sub-committees should be able to communicate with each other quickly through established and understood channels. Fourth, it is logical and mission-driven. Organizational governance structures should reflect the mission of the organization, and be logically designed to put decision-making authority in the hands of those most qualified in any specific policy area. Fifth, it is inclusive of all stakeholders. Those serving in formal positions should be representative of the organizational as a whole.