Alan Borsuk wrote this past weekend about the ongoing will he or won’t he saga of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) superintendent Gregory Thornton. I call it a saga because rumors of the eventual departure of Thornton have been prevalent since pretty much day one of his tenure. I suppose that’s a good thing, if people are coming after your guy your guy must be doing something right.
First, they are inherently less democratic. Publicly elected school boards have electoral accountability. While a mayoral-run district does have some electoral accountability, it is by definition diffused. There is a big difference between being able to hold a neighborhood official accountable just for your schools than being able to hold a big-city mayor accountable for schools when he or she represents the entire city and has any number of issues for which he or she is responsible.
Could there be times when the potential positive impact of a governance change makes the loss of democracy acceptable? Maybe. Arguably the extreme case of post-Katrina New Orleans is an example of such a time. However, all things equal I am going to err on the side of democracy.
Second, Wisconsin’s Act 10 empowered school boards to make personnel and financial decisions that were formerly off-limits. Getting rid of the MPS board, particularly after their aggressive use of Act 10 to change their fiscal trajectory in the near-term, is illogical. Pro-Act 10 arguments are undermined if the Governor suddenly decides to change MPS’ governance structure.
Third, the track records of governance reforms are a mixed bag. Wong, Shen, Anagnostopoulos, and Rutledge found in their 2007 book, The Education Mayor, that mayoral governance can lead to significant academic gains. However the circumstances matter; in particular a willing mayor, proper timing and the right partnerships between stakeholders are important. Milwaukee had a willing mayor in its attempt at reform, but the timing and level of community buy-in could not have been worse. As the WPRI polling shows, timing and potential for community buy-in will be an ongoing obstacle to this type of reform in Milwaukee.
Alan Borsuk is likely right that the post-Thornton MPS will look much like MPS today. And I have heard no one, including MPS, argue that the district’s current position is acceptable. Hence it is easy to see why well-meaning people want a major governance reform. But until we have community buy-in as to what public education in Milwaukee should look like I suspect any major attempt at governance reform will fail.
And that’s too bad. The longer we (myself included) indulge in the distractions of technical minutia like funding flaws the longer we will go without a coherent approach to public education in Milwaukee that can actually gain buy-in and yield results.
“For analysis purposes, it was necessary to adopt a consistent measure of cost per student. We chose to use the state aid per student amount based on the following facts….For the 2009-13 school years, the maximum state aid per student to schools participating in the MPCP program was $6,442. By contrast, MPS per student state aid in 2010-11 was $8,322.”
First off there is no good rationale for solely comparing state aid in a study that purports to explore the connection between money and education. State aid is a property tax issue. If you want to make the connection between funding and performance you would look at total revenues, or, at the very least total state and local revenues determined by the state funding formula. This methodology is like comparing the wealth of two people by how much money each has in their checking accounts while ignoring their savings accounts. Sure it’s a comparison of something, but it misses the point.
Second the state support figure used for students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is $6,442. This is the same approach used by Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts earlier this year. Mayor Barrett and Milwaukee taxpayers shouldn’t get too excited, the choice program is not 100% supported by the state. As I wrote back in January:
What is even stranger is that the authors actually explain that Milwaukee taxpayers cover a significant portion of the cost of the MPCP, but continue to make the faulty comparison. I lay out a much better (in my opinion) method for comparing funding here: http://www.wpri.org/blog/?p=2140.
The report goes on to make a whole bunch of claims about the lack of fiscal transparency in the MPCP, citing the 2000 LAB Audit of the MPCP as its source for those claims. But since 2000 the fiscal scrutiny placed on the MPCP has increased greatly; 2003 Act 155 completely transformed the program’s fiscal regulatory framework. Not mentioning Act 155 is a huge omission.
I have not had a chance to go through everything in this report, but at the very least the treatment of choice funding raises a huge red flag about any conclusions made regarding public support and performance in the MPCP.
You ever find a twenty-dollar bill in an old pair of jeans? What do you do with it? Do you run to the bank and deposit it for a rainy day? Do you buy something you need? Or do you throw caution to the wind and splurge on a 12-pack of Spotted Cow?
The top priority should be an increase in per-pupil revenue limits. It is encouraging that the Governor, Republicans on Joint Finance, and Democrats on Joint Finance are all on the same page as I on this one. The state has empowered school boards with Act 10 to make decisions in areas where their hands were long-tied. Retying their hands with a revenue freeze was, in my opinion, illogical. A substantial increase in per-pupil revenue limits can both ease the pain experienced by school districts in the past couple years and build some goodwill between local and state government.
But what exactly do I mean by substantial increase? The public statements I have seen thus far propose increases between $100 and $275. I think a reasonable increase is an average one. Excluding the 5.5% cut in 2012 the average annual per-pupil revenue limit increase between 1994 and 2013 was $217. I think that number is substantial and achievable.
A $217 per-pupil increase that does not increase property taxes would cost the state $185.6 million (855,327 students X $217) next year. And while we are investing in education, we ought to include similar per-pupil increases for choice and charter. This would add about $7.5 million to the tab.
This is a substantial amount of new spending, but it is not a splurge, it is an investment in the state’s educational infrastructure.
Recently, someone responded to a WPRI blog post about the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) budget situation with the dreaded “so what?” question. The question was understandable, aren’t discussions of the details of education finance a distraction from the important work of educating kids? To answer my own question, no. Here is why.
First, though money may not be directly linked to improved academic outcomes, it certainty matters. Books, teachers, buildings, technology, and other materials necessary for a quality education system do not come free. The way scarce public education funds are distributed to Wisconsin districts and schools impacts the quality of these institutions.
Second, a key pillar of an egalitarian society is equal opportunity. The backbone of Wisconsin’s education finance system is an aid equalization formula designed to ensure districts can have an equitably funded school system no matter their tax base. It is important for Wisconsin’s future to understand if the equalization aid formula is operating as intended to ensure fair funding of education across districts.
Lastly, public budgets allocate public money. K-12 education is our state’s largest investment. I think it incredibly important to know how much of our money is being spent on education, where it is being spent, and how the distribution of public money is determined.
All of these reasons factor into why WPRI authored its latest report, Understanding School Finance in Wisconsin: A Primer. I warn you the report is a little different from our regular fare. I do not make policy recommendations or critiques. Instead I try to explain the ins and outs of education finance in a way that will be useful to policy-makers, education professionals, and Wisconsin citizens. Mostly I try to make the case that Wisconsin’s education finance system is understandable if a few key points are understood. Those points include:
Per-Pupil Revenue Limits: The amount of combined state aid and property tax that can be raised for each student in a school district.
Membership: The official count of the number of students in a district.
General School Aid: The state investment in education.
The Equalization Aid Formula: The formula that determines how school aids are distributed to districts.
Categorical Aid: Funding for specific programs that is not limited by revenue limits.
The understandable tendency to tune out discussions of the minutia of education finance too often allows important questions about our state’s largest investment to go unanswered. My hope is that this report will be used a resource that helps Wisconsinites answer some of these questions. Click here to download the full report.
If school choice is expanded to new municipalities in Wisconsin it will be no small miracle given the nature of the debate thus far. Below are impressions as the next crucial step in the state budget process, Join Finance, begins.
Ignoring of Best Evidence: The past couple week has brought a debate over how exactly Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) scores of students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program should be compared when judging program effectiveness. It’s a pointless debate because it is not how the effectiveness of the MPCP or any particular school can be judged. WKCE scores tell you nothing about the impact a school or program is actually having on student learning.
This is not to suggest WKCE scores are meaningless. They tell you where students are at, which is important. But if you want to judge the worth of a program such as the MPCP using test scores you need a more sophisticated study that looks at how exactly the program affects test scores for similar students. If only someone had done that.
Oh wait, they have. It was kind of a big deal too. The School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) found (to quote an earlier post):
Statistically significant gains for voucher users in reading compared to matched Milwaukee Public School (MPS) pupils (with the important caveat that the introduction of program wide WKCE testing in the final year of the evaluation could be responsible for some of the gains);
Statistically similar impacts on math test scores for matched MPS and MPCP users;
A modest positive impact on public school tests scores as more private schools participated in the MPCP;
Statewide taxpayer savings, though not in Milwaukee;
Higher graduation rates for voucher users compared to MPS;
Higher rates of four-year college enrollment for voucher users;
Evidence that closed schools in both MPS and the MPCP were the lower performers;
High levels of parental satisfaction;
No impact on housing prices or racial integration;
High rates of school switching;
Wide variation in achievement levels between schools; and
Much much more.
Whether you favor choice expansion or not it makes no logical sense to ignore the SCDP.
The Fiscal Note:New government programs are not free. Even programs that fund students at a lower level than public schools have significant impacts on state education funding. An April 15 Legislative Fiscal Bureau note explained the potential taxpayer and state education aid impact of nine new choice programs in Wisconsin. The reaction was messy, and predictably, created a NIMBY reaction among some legislators.
Flawed Program Design: School choice programs targeted toward failing districts are easy to sell to legislators, but fundamentally flawed. From a logistics standpoint it means advocates begin the local school choice debate by having to convince residents their public schools are bad. That is a losing argument. It also cedes the point that no, school vouchers are not an education reform, but rather a life raft for certain students.
Over-Dramatization: The state budget allocates $30.6 billion in general purpose revenue. About 0.02% of that is for expansion of the voucher program. I get that it’s a philosophical debate on how best to structure public education, but the outsized attention given to vouchers is almost comical. Early in my career I was struck by how “normal” schools in the Milwaukee choice program were. The further the debate gets from the ground the more ridiculous the arguments seem to get.
I fully realize that these observations are from the peanut gallery and the folks actually working on the ground for and against expansion necessarily approach the issue in a different manner than I. Nonetheless I feel it important to point out that there are good arguments for and against voucher expansion that are being ignored. This is a disservice to the people that will be impacted by expansion.
Finally, if I was a betting man, I’d say some kind of choice expansion happens.
Most important, MPS is increasing their staffing in key areas next year. Despite all the talk about governance structure the most important place in education is the school itself. MPS is increasing its school level staffing by 120.8 full-time-equivalent employees in FY14. A good number of those positions, 51, are teachers and educational assistants (though on the negative side the federal sequestration is responsible for the loss of 24 title 1 teachers). The district is also adding assistant principals, safety assistants, social workers, and nurse associates in schools. All of this is particularly impressive when overall enrollment is projected to decline 1%.
So how did they do this? A big part is the aggressive action the district has taken to reduce its benefit costs. MPS notes in their budget that their average teacher salary is increasing but their “school operations and categorical benefit” rate will drop to 58.4% from almost 70% just two years ago. Part of this is due to Act 10, and part of this is due to the willingness of MPS to take needed action.
Also interesting is the district’s enrollment projections. As mentioned the overall enrollment is projected to decline by 1%. Enrollment in traditional MPS schools is projected to decline by 3.1%. In contrast, enrollment in MPS non-instrumentality charter schools is projected to increases by 16%, over 1,000 students. Students in MPS non-union charter schools generate about $9,800 per child for the district, yet the district sends the schools only $7,775 per-pupil enrolled (though likely more next year). In other words, it’s a smart financial move for the district to increase enrollment in these schools. The district has quietly made expansion of their non-union charters a priority; their efforts are clearly showing.
There is a heck of a lot more in MPS’ budget, including many questions that cannot be answered until the state budget process is finished. However, there are clear signs that the efforts of the MPS board and administration to financially right the ship are starting to pay off. That’s a huge accomplishment for MPS, and one for which they deserve credit.
As I’ve said over and over, you cannot look at these scores and conclude that the Milwaukee Public Schools have a more positive impact on student learning than schools in the MPCP or vice-versa. But you can look at these scores and conclude that on aggregate Milwaukee students are not being adequately prepared for life after graduation (if they make it to graduation). You can also look at these scores and safely conclude:
1) Solely advocating for vouchers in Milwaukee is not a promising education reform position.
2) The “MPS good – vouchers bad” dichotomy (or vice-versa) is a false one. If you are attending any school in Milwaukee, there is a frighteningly high chance you are not proficient in math and/or reading.
3) The school-level bright spots, though they should be celebrated, are few and far between.
4) On whole what we are doing as city is not working.
1) There are many high-performing schools today that would not exist if not for the creation of the MPCP; and
2) 25,000 students as of today are using the MPCP. Flaws and all, the MPCP is a crucial part of Milwaukee’s public education system.
A school voucher is a tool. There is little to suggest that creating a school voucher program will magically raise student achievement. There is also nothing to suggest that ending or defunding the MPCP will increase achievement. Like traditional public schools, the success or failure of a school in a voucher program depends on the situation on the ground. The key question is whether a school voucher program can help get the situation dependent factors right in Milwaukee. I believe, through experience, that it can. But today’s release of test scores show we are getting those factors wrong too often in Milwaukee.
So where does Milwaukee go next? I continue to think that an authorizer-based accountability system utilizing MPS, the MPCP and Milwaukee’s charter sector, is a realistic and logical way for Milwaukee to move forward. But moving forward is a difficult proposition in Milwaukee. The reaction to today’s test score release will be predictable. School choice opponents will claim the program is a failure, school choice supporters will get defensive, politicians will spar over these results making unsupported claims, and eventually, next year, I’ll get to write this piece again.
“I don’t think you can honestly say that 25,000 students are using the Milwaukee Parental Choice program because they’re somehow being duped by big money politics. They’re using the program because they find it successful.”
I’ll reiterate that I am not naïve about the very real role of money in politics, nor am I opposed to the transparency work of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC). I think the work of the WDC is important; people have a right to know how much and where money is being spent in electoral politics.
“After 23 years, you’d think that if a state program failed to deliver the promised results and had a checkered management history to boot, lawmakers would be talking about ending it. Instead, they are debating its expansion.”
There is so much to counter in the commentary it is hard to know where to start. McCabe writes that advocates said the program would “not only boost the achievement of students benefiting from the public vouchers paying for them to attend a private or religious school, but would also lift all boats by creating competition among schools,” but concludes it “hasn’t happened.”
“the voucher program has been plagued over the years by story after story after story of poor performance, safety code violations, mismanagement and fraud.”
This statement is just irresponsible. Is he referring to David Seppeh, the former principal who stole from the program in 2004, who was caught and sent to prison? Seppeh, according to former Journal Sentinel writer Gregory Stanford, was caught “thanks to new standards voucher proponents helped draft.” If a few isolated cases of criminal fraud warrant eliminating a public institution or program we’d have to get rid of the public school system too.
Many things should be part of the debate on voucher expansion. Part of the debate should be the extensive research on the results of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Part of the debate should be the evolution of the MPCP over its existence. School choice in 2013 looks nothing like school choice in 1990, especially in terms of the effectiveness of its accountability framework. And part of the debate should certainly be the motives of those advocating for school choice…and against it.
At the start my public policy career I had the good fortune to work with someone who fully understood the power of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) in influencing Wisconsin policy debates. To paraphrase my colleague, legislators want answers, and LFB is the respected authority that provides them. It follows that the content of LFB fiscal notes are often the catalyst, or death knell, for major potential policy changes.
First the note points out the obvious. When a student switches from a public school to private school via the theoretical choice program the district loses revenue. Why? Each student attending a public school district generates somewhere around $10,000 in state aid and local revenue (this is an estimate for ease of understanding, the actual amount varies by district). When a student leaves for any reason, the district will eventually lose the $10,000 per-kid. If you look at Table 4 on page 5 the first column shows the eventual estimated impact on participating district revenue limits.
School districts will naturally get worked up about this; they want the market-share and the revenue that comes with it. However, it is hard to justify that districts should be receiving funds for students they are no longer educating.
The more problematic part of the note for school choice advocates is the next three columns. The first column shows the aid reduction to public school districts to pay for 38.4% of the new choice program. Districts don’t lose this money, they offset it with the property tax levy. In most cases, the local per-pupil cost for a choice program is less than the local per-pupil cost for a public school student, so on the surface it appears taxpayers are getting a bargain. However, the next column is where things get more complicated.
That column, labeled “Aid Formula Reduction,” reflects two things. First, the loss of state aid that would have been generated by each pupil that leaves the district. Second, the change in distribution of state and local aid caused by having fewer students in the per-member property value calculation. In English (or something closer to it), when a student leaves a district the district’s per-member property value increases, which lowers the portion of their revenue that comes from state aid and increases the portion that comes from the local property tax.
That is why, against all logic, that last column shows a levy increase despite the lower cost of the choice program. To put in even simpler, when a student leaves for any reason it does impact the state aid/property tax split for students the district is still educating.
Whether you follow me or not, it is important to note that the district does not lose any total revenue for students it continues to educate, it only makes them raise more of that revenue through the property tax. In other words, this is mainly a taxpayer issue.
All of this leads to the important question for legislators, do you support school choice on the merits, or will you pull support over these estimated levy changes? I have argued on this blog many times that there are good reasons to support school choice. It would be a shame if these good reasons are ignored because of the technical issue of a funding formula that was created prior to the creation of school choice programs.
How about that tongue twister? It is referring to the recent posting by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign that school choice supporters spent $9.8 millions dollars to support school choice in Wisconsin. This money came in the form of issue advertising from 3rd party groups as well as in the form of direct campaign contributions to legislators who support school choice.
You will excuse me if I am not blown away by this revelation. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (which impressively serves its mission for open government with a useful campaign contribution database) is against the role of money in politics and has every right to say so. But this latest report leaves me with a few pressing questions.
First, did legislators switch their positions on school choice because of campaign contributions? If the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is correct that “persistent, generous campaign contributions and millions of dollars more in outside election spending by mostly out-of-state interests are keys to the program’s survival and growth,” then it’s a small step to conclude that school choice would not be supported by any legislator if not for these shadowy outstate interests.
Most important, what about the 25,000 students using the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program? Were their families duped by money too? Or is it possible that polling from WPRI and others is correct and parents actually like school choice?
I am not naïve enough to think that money plays no role in politics, nor do I think the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is wrong to point out the political activity of school choice advocates in Wisconsin. But it is crucial that the other factors explaining the prominence of school choice in Wisconsin are not ignored. As I have said over and over again, the school choice programs in Wisconsin are not perfect, but they exist and are supported by many for reasons that have nothing to do with politics or campaign contributions.