In Pennsylvania, Republican legislators are pushing through a school vouchers bill that would divert increasingly scarce state education dollars to private and parochial schools. The move itself is controversial, but at the moment I’d like to focus on one particular aspect of the debate, as reported by the Hazleton Standard Speaker:
“The panel defeated an amendment by Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, to have choice students who attend a private or parochial school take the Pennsylvania State Standardized Assessment given periodically in public schools. That way there would be an equitable standard to measure academic performance, he added.”
Now why would school-choice advocates reject a proposal to have voucher recipients take the same test as their public-school peers? That seems peculiar. If a private school accepts money from the state, it ought to at least be willing to demonstrate that taxpayers are getting value out of that investment, right? If you want to be good stewards of public money, you need some means of measuring performance.
In addition, since the whole idea behind school choice is, well, choice, it would seem essential to give students in public and private schools the same test, so that parents can try to compare outcomes.
Up in Wisconsin — where public-school students regularly rank among the highest in the nation on the SAT and ACT, Gov. Scott Walker is also proposing to broaden an existing voucher program, as the AP reports:
“Walker is proposing expanding the voucher program that currently is only available to low-income students in Milwaukee. He wants to expand the program to all of Milwaukee County and phase out the low-income qualifying ceiling.
He also wants to do away with a requirement that voucher students take the same statewide achievement tests as students in public schools.”
Hmmm. There it is again: Walker wants to abolish a requirement that schools accepting taxpayer vouchers agree to test its students just as public schools do. And these are not isolated incidents. Voucher advocates often oppose any requirement to subject voucher recipients to standardized testing.
The Milwaukee voucher program, for example, has been in existence since 1990, but the testing requirement was added only in 2006, and even then over the protest of Republican legislators. And now that they and Walker have regained power, they want that provision gone. The question is why.
The editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel solves the mystery:
“Last week, scores released by the state Department of Public Instruction showed that students in Milwaukee’s school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee Public Schools in math and reading.
A day later, researchers at the University of Arkansas who have been tracking MPS and voucher students since 2005-’06 found that the two are performing roughly the same.”
Oh …. now it makes sense. They don’t want to mandate testing because that testing has demonstrated that students using vouchers are performing no better and perhaps worse than their public-school counterparts.
Again, the data go back only to 2005-2006 because until then, proponents of vouchers in Wisconsin had succeeded in blocking testing of students who used the program. That changed only after a major scandal erupted involving largely unregulated private schools.
As the Christian Science Monitor reported at the time:
“In one of the worst instances, a convicted rapist opened a school, which has since shut down. Reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tried to visit all 115 schools then in the program last year, and found a mixed bag. Nine schools refused to let reporters in, and the paper cited “10 to 15 others where … the overall operation appeared alarming when it came to the basic matter of educating children.”
One school was opened by a woman who said she had a vision from God to start a school, and whose only educational background was as a teacher’s aide. Others had few books or signs of a coherent curriculum. Yet they’ve been able to enroll students.”
And here’s an AP report on Milwaukee voucher schools from that same time frame:
“The schools are required to report virtually nothing about their methods to the state, or to track their students’ performance. Proponents say that frees the schools from onerous bureaucracy. But some say the lack of oversight makes them a prime target for abuse.
At the Mandella Academy for Science and Math, school officials admitted signing up more than 200 students who never showed and then cashing $330,000 in state-issued tuition checks, which the principal used to buy, among other things, Mercedes-Benzes for himself and the assistant principal.
Meanwhile, Alex’s Academics of Excellence received $2.8 million in voucher money over three years before the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the school’s founder, James A. Mitchell, served nearly a decade in prison for a 1971 rape. Unlike their counterparts at public schools, principals and teachers at private schools do not have to undergo criminal background checks.”
Theoretically, the marvels of the free market were supposed to run places such as “Alex’s Academics of Excellence” out of business. Instead, government was forced to intervene, because what happens in theory and what happens in reality are often two different things. But in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, loyalty to theory is once again carrying the day.
– Jay Bookman