The Legislative Audit Bureau’s (LAB) review of the final year of the state-authorized five year longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is once again bringing the never-ending debate on the efficacy of school choice into the public discourse.
At issue is the LAB’s conclusion that statistically significant test score gains for MPCP pupils in the final year of the study may be in part attributed to the introduction of universal Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) testing for all MPCP pupils. There is research showing mandatory testing can create a bump in test scores. Hence, LAB states the SCDP finding on reading gains is not conclusive.
The LAB analysis is news only if you did not read the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) studies when they were released earlier this year. The SCDP states clearly: “There is some evidence that the larger achievement growth of the MPCP students that we observe is attributable to the introduction of the accountability policy.” In other words, after five years we know MPCP and MPS students experience similar gains in math scores, and statistically significant gains in reading scores that may or may not be caused by the change in testing policy.
Some perspective. Even statistically significant gains are not necessarily all that substantively significant. A slightly higher reading score is not going to make or break the future of a child. It is important to understand what the SCDP study actually set out to accomplish. It was a program evaluation designed to determine how the MPCP impacted Milwaukee students. Accordingly, over the course of the study the public learned an almost overwhelming amount about a program that was once criticized for being understudied. The public now knows:
Finally, overall test scores gains are slightly higher in reading for MPCP pupils, and similar for MPCP and MPS pupils in math.
Given these findings policy makers and the public ought to be able to make an informed decision about whether the MPCP adds value to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. No, its mere presence does not create massive test score gains for all pupils, and yes, there is sometimes large variation in performance by school.
Additional steps to understand the impact individual schools are having on academic outcomes are important for creating policies that maximize the likelihood of school success. However the results of the SCDP’s program evaluation give plenty of reasons to conclude that Milwaukee is much better off with the MPCP than without it.
Education politics is full of enacted and proposed glamour policies that draw people in because they are just so dang intoxicating. Class size reduction is such a policy, who could be against small class sizes, no matter what the research says? The 75% solution, which argues that 75 cents on every dollar should be spent in the classroom, is another glamour policy. After all, who cares who decides what counts as classroom spending or that many districts already meet this threshold if the optics are good?
It is easy to see why policy makers find parent trigger laws enticing. It is much easier to defend legislation that forces changes to schools only when demanded by parents than it is to pass broader education reforms. Easier or not, parent trigger laws make little sense.
Foremost, there is nothing to suggest that simply reorganizing a school will improve student outcomes. Charter schools are good policy because they first create mission buy-in both from those running a school and those authorizing it, and second establish clear mechanisms for academic accountability. Converting a school to charter simply because parents did not like the old school does not create such buy-in and is unlikely to lead to a substantially improved school.
Tacitly the parent trigger is also problematic. Education reforms, particular those that empower parents, are huge political fights. In Milwaukee for example we have had vouchers for over twenty years and every tweak to the program requires a political battle. Imagine if a similar battle occurred not in a statehouse but in a school community. And imagine if it occurred multiple times every year instead of once every few years. The parent trigger will mean many battlefronts and much division, two things that are not conducive to widespread positive reform.
A smarter alternative to the parent trigger is school choice. Policy makers should pursue policies that give parents the power to choose, and policies that encourage quality and academically accountable private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Such policies are politically difficult to enact, but have infinitely more promise than the latest in a long line of ideas that seem too good to pass up.
Act 10 did give districts the power to offset reductions in revenue by increasing employee benefit contributions. Most districts were able to do this, and Wisconsin citizens did not perceive a decline in the quality of their local schools. However, teachers across the state received reductions in take-home pay for reasons totally unrelated to job performance. Their frustration is understandable. In year two the state budget provides a $50 dollar per-pupil increase in revenue limits. Hopefully districts will be able to use this revenue to reverse the cuts absorbed by teachers.
Second, Act 32 held the line on property taxes. While general school aids were reduced by almost 7% in year one, the corresponding decrease in revenue limits prevented school districts from offsetting aid cuts with property tax increases. In the next budget, needed increases in revenue limits will require increases in school aids if property taxes are to be held in check.
Third, changes to school choice increased educational opportunity in Wisconsin. Raising the income eligibility for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program created new schooling opportunities for Milwaukee families that formerly could neither afford tuition, nor quality for school choice. The creation of a choice program in Racine, as demonstrated by the comparably lower test-scores of program users in year one, gave struggling Racine students new hope for success.
Fourth, the failure to create additional charter school authorizers was a missed opportunity. The governor’s original budget expanded charter authorizing to all University of Wisconsin institutions. Had the provision remained in the budget promising charter schools like Madison Prep could be in operation today.
The 2011-2013 state budget was difficult for many in education, and those expressing that difficulty tomorrow have every right to do so. Still, policy makers cannot lose sight of the positives, including enhanced school choice. Moving forward I hope legislators take a serious look at the positives in the Department of Public Instruction’s Fair Funding plan, provide reasonable revenue limit and state aid increases to school districts, improve data systems for tracking student achievement, and more fully embrace an outcomes based K-12 education system.
Two days ago, the US Justice Department informed the state of Virginia that it would not challenge its new voter identification law. Utilizing the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department has challenged recently the voter ID laws of a number of states. Virginia is one of sixteen states with histories of voter discrimination that must gain federal approval before changing state statutes regarding voting and voter eligibility. Newly approved, Virginia’s law should be in effect for the November election.
Republicans, who mostly championed the requirement, are giddy that the Justice Department upheld their efforts (rare for a southern state with a history of slavery and racial injustices). Virginia’s law is moderate in terms of what it allows as a legitimate form of legal identification (the law actually expanded the definition); nevertheless, the GOP sees this as imperative to ensuring the integrity of the voting process and ensuring the “one-person, one-vote” principle. Democrats, meanwhile, have cried foul in voter ID cases across the country. They claim that voter ID laws unnecessarily curtail turnout, especially amongst minority voters (who happen to lean heavily Democrat). This development—the implementation of a voter ID law in perhaps November’s second-most competitive and important swing-state—led me to revisit Nate Silver’s excellent piece on the New York Times’ Five Thirty Eight blog. How much do voter ID laws actually suppress turnout?
The short answer is “not by much.” To be sure, voter ID requirements affect some would-be-voters, but not all of them Democrats. Most studies focus on the percentage of registered voters that would be turned away with voter ID laws, or forced to cast provisional ballots, rather than the electoral consequences to particular political parties. But if, say, educational attainment was the key factor in deciding the likelihood of having a valid identification—as some studies indicate—white voters lacking college degrees, who tend to vote Republican, would also be affected.
Silver notes that most voter ID studies indicate that a stringent voter ID law may curtail, at most, about 2% of the registered voting population. Whether this is statistically significant is a different matter, depending upon the size of the sample or registered voting population. But it is well below the 9% proffered by many vociferous opponents of Pennsylvania’s new law. I think several truths mitigate the 9% figure:
- A vast majority of adults have some form of identification that can pass for voting purposes, and most states, with the exception of Pennsylvania, have moderate forms of voter identification requirements (Virginia’s new law expands the list of acceptable forms of ID to include utility bills, paychecks, bank statements, government checks, and college ID).
- Many people who do not have proper identification are not registered to vote and are unlikely to turn out to vote if they are registered.
- Poll workers may not enforce consistently voter ID laws at the local level.
- In most states with voter ID laws, voters without proper identification may cast provisional ballots, counted later in the event of a recount, dispute, or upon subsequent presentation of proper ID.
- Political campaigns may educate their supporters about voter ID requirements and engage in grass-roots operations to obtain proper documentation.
- Only two presidential swing-states have enacted voter ID laws to date: Pennsylvania, and now Virginia.
In all, Silver concludes, “it wouldn’t take that much in terms of increased voter engagement—and increased voter conscientiousness about their registration status—to mitigate them.”
You can forgive people for being a little taken aback by the headline, after all, for years Wisconsinites have rightly taken pride in how well Wisconsin students do on the ACT compared to students in other states. However, the decrease in average performance merely reflects the fact that the ACT is not a good indicator of the overall quality of Wisconsin’s K-12 education system.
Scores did not go down because students learned less; scores went down because a higher percentage of students are taking the ACT every year. Still, in 2012 only about 61% of Wisconsin juniors took the test. And you cannot pin the low participation rate on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). MPS, to its credit, introduced universal ACT testing in 2010.
As I argued almost a year ago, the rest of the state should follow MPS’ lead. If all juniors took the ACT it would became a meaningful indicator of how well Wisconsin public schools are preparing students for college instead of confirmation that 3/5ths of our students appear to be doing fine. I thought it might be instructive to look at the differences between districts with high ACT participation rates and low participation rates.
Using DPI data (and taking MPS out of the equation) I identified some basic differences between the 72 school districts where less than 50% of pupils take the ACT, and the 346 districts where 50% or more of students take the test.
Districts with less than 50% ACT participation:
Enroll a higher percentage of minorities;
Enroll a substantially higher percentage of low-income pupils (as indicated by free/reduced lunch eligibility;
Enroll a higher percentage of pupils with IEPs;
Make up just one of the 64 Wisconsin districts located in suburban areas (as classified by the U.S. census);
Have lower levels of math proficiency (on the WKCE); and
Have lower levels of reading proficient (on the WKCE).
In other words, the students that are under-represented in Wisconsin ACT results are more likely to be minority, low-income, have special needs, be located in non-suburban areas, and score lower on standardized tests. This is precisely the population our schools too often fail, making it even more important that they are included if the test is to tell us anything about statewide performance. In addition, making sure every student takes an exam that is a pre-requisite to enrolling in a four-year college may open doors for pupils that were not considering higher education.
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) wisely included universal ACT testing in its granted NCLB waiver request. However, it will only be implemented if funding is provided. DPI, the legislature, and the Governor would be wise to make universal ACT testing a budget priority so that Wisconsinites have a better idea of how our schools are preparing all pupils for life after high school.
Did you know if you own property in Racine a portion of your property tax goes to fund K-12 education for Racine students? Shocking.
In fact, did you know if you own property anywhere in Wisconsin a portion of your property tax goes to fund K-12 education in your community? Also shocking.
The only difference in Racine, (as in Milwaukee), is that a portion of the local property tax goes to pay for the education of 250 students (500 next year) attending private schools. And why shouldn’t local property tax payers be responsible for paying for part of the cost of a program used by local students? It would be irresponsible public policy if they did not.
Also important, as Jim Bender points out in today’s Racine Journal Times, the per-pupil cost to a Racine property taxpayer is less for a voucher student than a Racine Unified School District (RUSD) student. Part of the reason for the cheaper local cost is the overall inequity in state and local funding for voucher and RUSD pupils.
In 2012 the RUSD per-pupil revenue limit was $9,611.55, meaning the district was allowed to raise $9,611.55 in revenue per-pupil from a combination of state aid and property taxes. The comparable figure for the Racine choice program is $6,442. In a perfect world these numbers would be closer together, but the fact remains Racine voucher users cost state and local taxpayers less per-pupil than RUSD pupils.
The catch is that 38.4% of the cost of the Racine choice program, or $2,474 per-pupil, comes from a reduction in state aid to RUSD. RUSD is allowed to, however, offset 100% of the reduction by increasing property taxes above the revenue limit. This is what people call the voucher tax. It may sound complicated but in reality all it means is that RUSD is the taxing entity for the local cost of the Racine choice program. Obviously local independent private schools do not have the ability to raise property taxes for publicly funded pupils; hence RUSD serves that function.
The alternative to the current situation is having the state fund 100% of the Racine choice program. It would eliminate the voucher tax, but it would also be poor public policy. Public education is, in my opinion, a local responsibility and local property taxpayers should bear some of its cost. And yes, publicly funded pupils, no matter where they attend school, are part of Wisconsin’s public education system.
RUSD Chief Financial Officer David Hazen does have a legitimate point when arguing the district takes a state aid hit by not being able to count the portion of Racine voucher users funded through the RUSD levy. Not counting the kids does not cost RUSD revenue, but it does increase the portion of total revenue that comes from Racine taxpayers. This remains an issue worth addressing in Racine and Milwaukee.
Nonetheless, what is being called the Racine voucher tax remains a logical way to fund a portion of a program used by Racine pupils. Unfortunately, it is becoming the latest in a long list of issues that distract from the infinitely more important goal of improving outcomes for Wisconsin pupils.
Right now Milwaukee county parks compete for funding with transit, public works, social services, and healthcare and pension costs for current and retired employees. Pitting the parks budget versus committed legacy costs or highly visible departments like public works is not a fair fight. Deferring maintenance on a playing field will take some time to get noticed, stopping garbage pick-up or pension payments will cause immediate uproar and legal action.
Removing Milwaukee parks from county government would also set an important precedent for other local governments struggling to adequately fund essential services to residents. Imagine what school districts, for example, could do without the array of non-education expenses that too often eat into classroom expenditures. Imagine if cities and counties could focus only on providing services for residents rather than budgeting for promises made in decades past. Surely services would improve.
Public parks contribute to the quality of life of a community, thereby playing a vital role in keeping neighborhoods stable and prosperous. If the percentage of the county tax levy going to Milwaukee parks continues its downward slide Milwaukee’s quality of life will suffer. Creating an accountable independent park district whose sole function is running and funding a parks system is not radical, it’s logical.
“Good bye to 1/2 of the black representation in Wisconsin’s [legislature] and the progress of my elders”
The above quote comes from Sen. Lena Taylor’ Facebook page. Race certainly played a prominent role in Milwaukee’s spring primary. Yesterday’s results guarantee that for the next two years the Milwaukee delegation will be less racially diverse than the city’s population as a whole. Two white candidates, Sandy Pasch and Evan Goyke, prevailed in minority majority assembly districts.
Does this matter? There is research out there on political representation (see this study by Melissa J. Marshall for example) showing that Black and Hispanic constituencies have higher government satisfaction levels when represented by Black and Hispanic officials. I also agree with Sen. Taylor that, given our nation’s sordid racial past, the paucity of minorities in the state legislature is troubling. However, both Pasch and Goyke were elected by their constituents. If residents of the 10th and 18th Assembly District have problems with Pasch and Goyke they can vote them out in 2014.
Narrative 2: The Purge
Jason Fields and Peggy Krusick are both veteran Milwaukee politicians, and both lost to challengers from the left. A look at their records show both Fields and Krusick to be reliable Democratic voices, however their willingness to buck party orthodoxy on school choice and voter ID respectively became issues in the primary campaign. If this narrative is correct, expect to see less voting disunity within the Milwaukee caucus.
Narrative 3: The Power Struggle
South side Sen. Chris Larson endorsed Sandy Pasch, Nikiya Harris, Mandela Barnes, and Evan Goyke in Milwaukee primaries. All won. North side Sen. Lena Taylor endorsed Millie Coby, Elizabeth Coggs, and Jason Fields in Milwaukee primaries. All lost. The active participation of Taylor and Larson and the victory of Larson’s preferred candidates suggest he is now the most powerful member of the Milwaukee legislative delegation. No doubt the prospect of Chris Larson being a successor to Gwen Moore in Congress just became more realistic.
Narrative 4: A Message to National School Choice Advocates
The national American Federation for Children was involved in supporting Jason Fields, Millie Colby, Jarrett Fields, Elizabeth Coggs, and Tracy Dent. All five candidates lost after the involvement of the organization itself became a prominent campaign issue. The disconnect between Milwaukee public opinion on school choice and the position of Milwaukee elected officials suggest school choice is not the deciding issue for many voters. Still, the future involvement of national school choice advocates in Milwaukee elections is something to watch.
Ok. I admit it’s unlikely that Rep. Ryan will be giving stump speeches based on his pro-government credentials. Nonetheless a fundamentally positive view of government is part of Ryan’s platform. The new newly minted vice-presidential candidate states in his Path to Prosperity budget proposal:
“The unchecked growth of government has degraded its effectiveness and rendered its institutions incapable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.”
Ryan made a similar point in a speech I attended in Janesville earlier this summer. He argued the increasing debt burden on the United States makes debt service a growing annual expense that lessens the nation’s ability to provide a social safety net, an adequate defense, and other essential government services. Simply, the pie of available government funds is shrinking because of our obligations. The longer debt grows unchecked the worse the structural problem becomes (check out the scary graph on page 6 of Ryan’s plan).
Ryan’s argument parallels one WPRI has made repeatedly at the local level: Growing legacy, debt service, and healthcare costs are not abstract concerns but rather annual lines on government budgets that threaten the adequate funding of needed government programming. I do think legislators on both sides of the aisle get this basic structural problem. The difference is the preferred policy response.
Ryan proposes cuts to federal government spending, lower taxes, and structural changes to our social safety net designed to lower costs, and, in his opinion, improve quality. In other words, reverse the growth of debt by shrinking overall spending and encouraging economic growth.
I am hopeful the choice of Ryan represents a growing acceptance among conservatives that government can and should play an important role in American life. The nature of that role, the ways in which its efficiency can be maximized, and the ways in which it can be sustained long-term deserve attention and debate. The entry of Rep. Ryan into the presidential race is fostering such a debate, and that is a huge step toward building government institutions that are up to the challenges of the 21st century.
In other words, the idea of food deserts, one of the most popular explanations for a very real obesity crisis in low-income neighborhoods, is not scientifically supported on aggregate. Kim argues the studies miss part of the story by focusing on the 30,000-foot view rather than looking at individual neighborhoods. It is a legitimate argument that I agree with, but I think there is a more important explanation for the lack of connection between the availability of good food and obesity.
The explanation is firmly rooted in something I call the housing project principle. The phrase (which has failed to catch-on, come on people!) refers to the tendency in public policy to blame and address only the most obvious symptom of a societal problem. People do not have homes? Build a housing project. People are not eating healthy, put healthy food in their neighborhood.
Policy decisions made using the housing project principal tend to be, like housing projects, well-intentioned failures. I have no doubt that simply flooding low-income neighborhoods with cheap healthy food would fail to curb childhood obesity.
Last year I shared a panel with a researcher out of Rutgers-Newark who offered one of the more interesting findings on the topic. The researcher, Molly Makris, is looking at the impact of gentrification in Hoboken, NJ through a qualitative study of the one remaining housing project in the otherwise fully gentrified high-income city. She found that the lower-income residents of Hoboken still shopped at the corner store across the street from the housing project despite the availability of cheaper healthier food at a comparable distance. Why? The corner store is a neighborhood institution, more important, it is their neighborhood institution.
Neither Markis’ research nor the studies in the New York Times mean the concept of food deserts should be crossed off the list of policy concerns. Obesity drives up the cost of health-care, and the rising cost of health-care threatens the public sector, the private sector, and the quality of life for Wisconsinites. And yes, the availability of healthy food is a necessary prerequisite for lowering the obesity rate in low-income (and middle- and high-income) neighborhoods. But it is not enough. Lowering obesity rates requires health education, opportunities and incentives for exercise, and so much more.
Thankfully, there is plenty of evidence that that philanthropic sector in particular understands the need for multi-track efforts to address obesity. Non-profits in Milwaukee and elsewhere (such as my sister’s KidFit Academy) are popping up to address food and health issues that go far beyond ending the paucity of fresh produce in some neighborhoods.