Over the weekend I had an op-ed posted on Jsonline.com that failed to impress Diane Ravitch. In fact, my op-ed gave her a “hearty laugh.” Her largest problem seemed to be my use of the word divisive. I guess I am not sure what else to call a proposal for shutting down the mechanism by which 1/3rd of Milwaukee students receive their public education. But if pointing out the simple fact that vouchers and charters are not abstract concepts but programs used by 30,000 mostly low-income Milwaukee pupils elicits nothing but a chuckle, so be it. To paraphrase the rowdy party guest in Don’t Look Back, Diane Ravitch is a big noise, and I am not.
Though I did find the comments on Ravitch’s blog posts indicative of a persistent problem in Milwaukee education: Advocates view each other as caricatures of right-wing privatizers or left-wing unionistas. Last I checked I was a pretty reasonable guy who simply wanted to see my city, where I own (well the bank owns most of it) a modest two-bedroom home, a more educated, integrated, open-minded, and prosperous place. But apparently I am a Koch-funded right-wing privatizing proselytizing ideologue trying to line my pockets with money that was supposed to go towards educating low-income children.
Luckily, there are good data about who actually supports school choice in Milwaukee. First and foremost, we know from the School Choice Demonstration Project that Milwaukee parents using school choice generally are satisfied. We also know from Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) polling that 57% of Milwaukee residents support the city’s school choice program, while only 27% oppose. This includes a majority of Democrats, which comprised 56% of the sample. Republicans only made up 12% of the sample because there are just not many Republicans in the City of Milwaukee.
In other words, your typical school choice supporter in Milwaukee is not a right-wing ideologue, but a Democrat. Our poll also showed strong support among African-Americans (our Hispanic sample was too small to make such a claim).
As long as I am addressing misinformation, here are a couple other claims that never seem to go away. The first is the creaming question: Do choice and charter simply take the best kids? First off, users of school choice tend to be lower-income (though better educated) than Milwaukee Public School (MPS) families. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) high schools indicate that many of their students come to the school “behind academically…in some cases by two or more grade levels in multiple subject areas.”
And yes, MPS does serve a higher percentage of special needs students than the MPCP and charter sectors. However, the SCDP determined, by looking at how kids that switched sectors were classified, that between “7.5 and 14.6 percent of Choice students have disabilities that likely would qualify them for special education services in MPS.”
Speaking of switchers, what about the oft-repeated claim that schools in the choice program keep kids until the September count date, cash their $6,442 check, and send the kids back to MPS where the district receives no funding for them? First, there absolutely is attrition during the year…in all three sectors. The MPCP, MPS, and independent charter program all enrolled fewer students in January than in September in the 2011-2012 school year.
But specifically what happens if a student is kicked out of a MPCP school and sent to MPS after the third Friday count? First, the student does not generate the full voucher payment. The second two payments are generated by the January count date so the school will receive only half a payment. Second, MPS does get to count the student in its January count date, which will generate funding for the next school year (public school revenues are based on the previous year’s numbers). Also, because of a change in state law in 2009 spurred by this very claim, MPS is the only district in the state that 1) Has an additional count date in May, and 2) Gets to use the highest number of all three count dates for its membership, rather than the average of the September and January count dates.
Back to my original point. I suppose the key question is whether you consider the Milwaukee choice and charter programs to be public education. I do. Eliminating these programs is a divisive idea because it rips Milwaukee’s public education system apart. Neither the choice program nor the charter school program are perfect, but Milwaukee is better off with the Notre Dame Middle Schools, King’s Academies, Milwaukee Academies of Science, and Eastbrook Academies of the world than without. The city does need a unifying education agenda, and it won’t happen if step one is alienating the 30,000 families served by and thousands more dedicated professionals working in MPCP and charter schools.