What do the reports released today tell us about school choice in Milwaukee? About the worst that can be said about both choice and charter schools is that their impact on achievement gains are not as large as some might hope.
The fifth and final year of growth data from matched MPS and MPCP pupils shows, for the first time, a statistically significant advantage in reading for choice pupils. There is also evidence that the MPCP is positively impacting math scores, but the study team cautions that the evidence is not conclusive. The SCDP describes the findings as such:
“A comparison of mean test scores and other descriptive statistics indicated that in some grades students who attended MPCP schools in 2006 exhibited greater growth in reading achievement from 2006 to 2010 than a group of matched MPS students. This finding was repeated when we estimated multivariate models that included baseline test scores and student demographic variables. Test scores in mathematics also favored MPCP students but the results did not reach statistical significance in most of our statistical comparisons.”
Evidence is also presented showing that MPCP graduates are more likely to go to a four-year college than MPS pupils. A slightly higher percentage of MPS pupils go to two-year college, but the difference is not statistically significant.
The SCDP estimates are based on MPCP school data (low-end of the estimate) and an analysis of the percentage of students who spent time in both MPS and the MPCP that were designated as special needs while in MPS (the high-end of the estimate).
The SCDP is also highly critical of the manner in which DPI reported the percentage of choice pupils with special needs in a series of releases last year. The study team calls the DPI estimate “negatively biased, by a lot.”
“That trend was not continued in the fifth year where estimates of four-year achievement growth are positive for charter schools but the basic models do not produce statistically significant differences between students attending all independent charters and the MPS sample of students.”
However, it is notable that students in conversion charter schools (those that formerly participated in the MPCP), as well as students that stayed in their charter school over the course of the study were outperforming similar MPS pupils.
If anything, the fifth and final year of the state-mandated choice evaluation should put the tired claim that there is insufficient information about school choice in Milwaukee to rest. The evaluation has made clear that the MPCP has a neutral to positive impact on student achievement, and a positive impact on student attainment. And those findings merely scratch the surface; the 36 reports produced over the course of the evaluation provide remarkable insight into just about every aspect of school choice in Milwaukee.
A tweet today by State Superintendent Tony Evers on the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) desire for authority to intervene in charter schools caught my eye. Evers, who was responding to a New York Times editorial, wrote:
“if weak charters stay open, students are deprived & public $ wasted. Our ESEA waiver will help us take action.”
Indeed, the state’s federal No Child Left Behind waiver will give DPI the ability to intervene in and eventually close charter schools it deems low performing. The waiver, if granted, will undermine the very idea of charter schools.
The charter school concept is simple:
A school articulates its academic goals and mission.
It gets an approved charter school authorizer to buy into its goals and mission.
The school and authorizer enter into a contract that makes clear both sides’ expectations.
If a school meets the terms of its contract, it stays open. If it does not, the authorizer has the power to close the school.
The heart of the concept is that the authorizer is the accountability agent. Authorizers are specified in state statute; currently the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the City of Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College have the power to approve charter schools.
The state’s NCLB waiver diminishes the role of charter authorizers by making DPI the accountability agent. The language in the final waiver is somewhat vague, but essentially a charter school deemed low performing by DPI has the option of closing or agreeing to a diagnostic review and approved reform plan. If, “after three years of targeted interventions” the school “has not demonstrated adequate improvement,” the school’s “charter will be revoked.”
While I agree with Evers that weak charters should not remain open, I do not see why DPI should become the de facto authorizer of all Wisconsin charter schools. Doing so only limits the diversity of education approaches and goals that make the charter sector so appealing. And lest we forget, the research on Milwaukee charter schools shows they are working. The School Choice Demonstration Project concludes:
“Based on three years of student achievement growth, charter school students outperformed MPS students in both reading and mathematics after controlling for baseline achievement and other student characteristics. These results were statistically significant with more than 99 percent confidence.”
If DPI feels certain charter school authorizers are not exercising due diligence in holding schools accountable, the department should make its case to the legislature to change the institutions empowered to authorize schools. However, steps to undermine the role of authorizers, especially when evidence indicates the charter sector is adding value in Milwaukee, make little sense.
An article in the February 10thBusiness Journal comments on the continuing debate over who is responsible for moving utility lines to make room for the new Milwaukee Streetcar. As I have touched on before, the fight over the project seems way out-of-proportion to its scope; the line will only go from the Intermodal station to the East Pointe Pick ‘n Save.
The contrast between the battle for a downtown streetcar and the creation of the MetroEXpress routes reminds me of a 1968 Lewis Mumford essay, “The Highway and the City.” Mumford, an urbanist and social critic, argued that there is no single best mode of transportation. Though the target of his criticism was the automobile, his point is no less relevant to other types of transportation. A bus is not inherently better or worse than fixed rail, a car, or even a horse. What matters is what these modes of transportation do, not what they are.
In that vein, Mumford defines the purpose of transportation as being:
“to bring people or goods to places where they are needed, and to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within a limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel.”
Under this framework MCTS looks enlightened, and the streetcar plan looks foolish. Connecting the airport to the region’s largest concentration of jobs and commerce is a no-brainer. The terminal points of the streetcar, on the other hand, are both downtown (or at least on the edge of downtown), and less than two miles apart. What lies between are the dense blocks urbanists should want people walking. What exactly does moving people from one part of downtown to another via a streetcar accomplish?
The counter to my point remains the potential route map that if built, would be a genuine transit system. Mumford was a critic, not a politician, so perhaps his framework cannot account for the political argument that the initial route will lead to new useful lines. I hope that is true, and that a particular type of transportation infrastructure is not being pursued at the expense of an improved transit system.
Something tells me a grazing ground for seagulls is not what John Norquist had in mind when he tore down the Park East freeway. Yet, almost a decade after Milwaukee took the remarkable step of tearing down a highway much of the reclaimed downtown real estate remains undeveloped.
The latest company to reject the site was Kohl’s, which announced plans to stay in Menomonee Falls. Kohl’s gave several reasons for the decision, according to the Journal Sentinel:
However, a downtown headquarters and parking structure would cost more to build than a similar project at a suburban site. That’s mainly because urban developments are built on smaller parcels, requiring taller buildings and multi-deck parking structures.
Also, a downtown building would have faced higher property taxes than a Menomonee Falls building.
Finally, a move from Menomonee Falls to downtown would have been disruptive for many Kohl’s employees.
It is unfortunate for Milwaukee, landing a major employer in the heart of downtown would have been a real coup for the city. It’s notable that Mayor Barrett made quite the effort to land Kohl’s, including securing tax credits and making plans for $100+ million in TIF financing. It begs the question, was the company ever truly serious about moving downtown, or simply using the possibility as leverage for a new site in Menomonee Falls?
Whatever the answer to that question, the whole affair is a powerful reminder of the limits of regional cooperation. Groups like the Milwaukee – 7 (which John Byrnes tore into on Sunday) are designed to facilitate cooperative efforts in luring out-of-state businesses to the Milwaukee region. But as Kohl’s (and before that Manpower) illustrates, when it comes to moves within the region it is every municipality for itself.
One specific aspect of the report caught my eye. The relevant passage is below:
“In addition, much of the growth appears to have come from students already enrolled in these schools. In fact, in 56 schools, the growth in voucher use from 2010-11 to 2011-12 exceeded the overall enrollment growth in the school; and in another 13 schools, voucher growth and enrollment growth were equal.”
This is an important point. If new voucher users were tuition paying pupils in the prior year, the total state savings attributable to the program come into question.
The ongoing state-authorized evaluation of the MPCP by the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) concluded in a 2010 report that the choice program saves Wisconsin taxpayers $51.9 annually. However, that number is based on the informed assumption that 90% of students using the MPCP would otherwise be enrolled in public schools at public expense. If some MPCP pupils, like the PPF alludes, would be in private school regardless the savings go down. If only 70% of voucher users can be assumed to otherwise be in public schools, for example, state savings would be $11.4 million annually.
The qualifying phrase (“appears to have come”) used in the PPF report is important. Simply showing that the increase in the number of voucher users in a school equaled or surpassed total enrollment growth does not prove that new voucher users were tuition paying students in the previous year. According to the Journal Sentinel article:
“Anneliese Dickman, research director for the Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization, said it is impossible to determine the exact number of new voucher students who were paying tuition at the same schools last year because the state does not ask students what school they attended the previous year.”
There are actually several reasons to suspect many of the new voucher users may be new to their schools. First is the overall high level of school and sector switching in Milwaukee. Second, some of the program’s 2011-12 growth (224 out of 2,202 students) is at schools in their first year of operation as private schools. Third, 562 new voucher pupils are in entry-level grades (K4, K5, and 9). However, none of these reasons are conclusive.
Simply, no definitive data to prove or disprove the claim that new voucher users were previously attending their current private school exists. But that information could, and should exist. Including MPCP users in the state’s unique identifier system, which enables the tracking of public school students by assigning each a number, would provide this and other useful information.
As far as I can tell nobody opposes the inclusion of MPCP pupils in the system. It is a logical step that can move another Milwaukee education reform issue out of the realm of speculation.
Just like communities and individuals have been affected, the foreclosure crisis has had an effect on the state of Wisconsin, in terms of unemployment. . . . This will offset that damage done to the state of Wisconsin
The problem is that the policy options Walker (or any other Governor) has are limited. The 2011-13 budget already cut K-12 school aids, shared revenue to local governments, and funding for higher education. The cuts to higher education were the subject of another Journal Sentinel story this morning. Administrators across the UW system say they are struggling to maintain quality in the face of revenue losses, UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell cites the loss of over 40 faculty members to other institutions as exhibit A in demonstrating the challenge he faces.
The perils of another strategy, finding lower-cost ways to deliver state services, shows up in another Journal Sentinel story this morning on the notable absence of a common school accountability system for all schools receiving public revenue in a new piece of education legislation. Erin Richards writes of the bill:
[I]t did not propose creating a statewide school accountability system that would hold all public schools and publicly funded private voucher schools to the same standards.
What is not mentioned in the story is that an identical public, private, and charter school accountability system is functionally impossible, and undesirable. The presence of religion in private choice schools for example requires that the schools spend (and document the purpose of) every dollar they receive annually through the choice program so as not to have a surplus that could be seen as aiding religion. In comparison, having and carrying over a surplus in a public school district may actually be a sign of responsible budgeting. And the heart of the charter school concept is a third party authorizer that serves as the accountability agent. A common accountability system undermines the very idea of a charter school.
More important, if choice and charter face identical public school rules and regulations, there is every reason to expect them to be nothing more than poorly funded public schools that may save the state money, but not increase educational quality. What is needed is a way to ensure all of our schools are accountable and transparent, not identical regulation.
The straightforward short-term answer to a revenue shortfall is to simply raise taxes. This is a political non-starter and a bad idea for the long-term competiveness of our state. The easier said than executed long-term solution to Wisconsin’s revenue problem is a combination of policies conducive to economic growth, new approaches to local service delivery, and responsible state budgeting. And of course, Wisconsin’s toxic state of political discourse must be addressed.
Milwaukee State Senator Tim Carpenter put out a press release today calling for the Joint Legislative Council to review Wisconsin’s recall statutes and make recommendations for changes and updates as needed. Carpenter states in his release that his request has bipartisan support. I do not doubt that it does.
The Senator offers a list of questions that address many of the hot-button issues surrounding the recall efforts.
Should circulators of a recall petition reside in Wisconsin?
Should there be a limit on contributions to an elected official before a recall is certified? Should giving something of value for signing a petition be prohibited?
Should recall petitions be posted online after submission to the GAB?
Should the GAB be required to review recall signatures and determine if signatures are appropriate?
Should party affiliation be required in a primary election (the “fake candidates” issue)?
Should the threshold number of signatures to hold a recall be changed?
The logistics of managing the process require that all these questions be answered, but I am more interested in a broader question: Should we be recalling politicians because of policy differences?
Caledonia State Representative Robin Vos says no, he proposed a constitutional amendment last summer requiring recall petitioners to cite a reason such as corruption prior to starting a recall effort. Passing a constitutional amendment, however, is a lengthy process which, along with tepid support in the legislature, likely makes Vos’ idea a non-starter.
It is unfortunate. Consider when WPRI asked Wisconsinites their general thoughts on the recalls last fall, a majority (52%) deemed them a “negative development.” So even when anger over the Governor and the legislature was at its highest, a slight majority of citizens expressed dissatisfaction with the concept.
A recall, as demonstrated by its rare use throughout Wisconsin history, is an extreme response to a policy disagreement. Chuck Lane (the same Chuck Lane who showed Stephen Glass the door at The New Republic) put it well in an editorial yesterday, writing sarcastically:
I had supposed that Walker’s victory in 2010, along with the victory of Republicans in both houses of the state legislature, entitled the people’s choices to make policy until the next election.
Perhaps once the recall effort against Walker comes to its conclusion the extreme measure of recalling an elected official will become a rarity in Wisconsin politics. Perhaps scheduled elections will again be the way we hold politicians accountable for performance. Perhaps Senator Carpenter’s questions were posed only to make the gubernatorial recall go smoother. My fear is that the bipartisan request is being made to prepare for more recalls.
The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) board voted yet again last week against making cost-saving changes to the district’s food program. The changes, recommended by Superintendent Gregory Thornton, would include the creation of a leased commissary instead of a centrally run district kitchen. District board documents show the rejected changes would have saved MPS about $10 million over the next fifteen years.
The battle over MPS food service can be traced back to a 2009 report by an outside consultant than showed the district would save over $10 million annually by offering pre-packaged meals to students. That idea went nowhere. The proposal rejected last week was actually a far more modest compromise that would have saved MPS less money, but maintained a significant role for district employees.
“Privatization of governmental services is not about saving the taxpayers money. It is about how some private corporations are looking to take over governmental services in order to maximize company profits. Even some marginally “nonprofits” are a part of this business game.
We once took pride in the word “public” – public parks, public museums, public libraries and public schools. Somehow the private sector has turned “public” into a dirty word and convinced us that “private” is better.”
On the surface, this is pure ideology. I read Falk’s position as such: If somebody profits or if a public job is moved to the private sector, even it means more money getting into the MPS classroom, it is by definition unacceptable. Myself, and I imagine others who see the school board’s primary purpose as educating pupils, find this position ridiculous. But there is something other that ideology driving this issue: Politics.
Consider that MPS is the third largest employer in the City of Milwaukee with 10,943 employees. While MPS jobs are just 2.6% of the city total it is significant that most MPS jobs provide middle-class wages (in a city with a median household income of just $35,000). Another 18,000 Milwaukeeans work for the City of Milwaukee or the Federal government. These numbers combined show that a significant chunk of Milwaukee’s middle-class is made up of public employees.
It is this middle-class that turns out for school board races; voting against a few million dollars for kids in exchange for appeasing your political base is a politically rational thing to do. The only losers are children in classrooms that might benefit from a more efficient school district.
I have yet to join the camp that favors abolishing the elected MPS school board, but actions like this make it easy to see why that camp exists.