“Bait and Switch”

New report pushes voucher fans to fast-talk around problems

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Barbara Miner

For almost two decades, Milwaukee has been home to the country’s oldest and largest voucher program?a beacon of hope for voucher supporters who want to use public dollars to fund private schools. But Milwaukee has now become the latest in a string of setbacks for vouchers.

A long-awaited study released in late March found no significant difference between the academic achievement of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students and those in the private voucher schools. In the end, the free-market rhetoric at the core of the voucher program failed education as much as it failed the economy.

The Milwaukee study reaffirmed what public school supporters had argued for years: that the problems afflicting urban schools are grounded in economic and racial segregation and the power structure’s willingness to abandon central cities because they are disproportionately populated by low-income people of color.

The Milwaukee study follows a number of disheartening developments for voucher advocates. For instance:

  • The Washington, D.C., voucher program, which serves 1,716 students, is on life-support. The federal spending bill passed and signed in March does not provide funding beyond the 2009-10 school year, and President Barack Obama’s proposed 2010 budget only provides money for students already in the program to finish their schooling.
  • The Arizona Supreme Court unanimously ruled in March that voucher programs targeting special needs and foster-child students violate the state’s constitutional ban on using public dollars to fund private religious organizations. While the voucher movement gained new life in 2002 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland voucher program, other initiatives have been declared unconstitutional under more restrictive state mandates on church/state separation.
  • Influential conservatives are increasingly distancing themselves from vouchers.

One of the most significant and earliest defections came from one-time voucher supporter Sol Stern. Writing in the winter 2008 issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, Stern wrote that the voucher movement had “hit a wall.” “Education reformers ought to resist unreflective support for elegant sounding theories, derived from the study of economic activity, that don’t produce verifiable results in the classroom,” Stern wrote. “[T]he evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better.”

In September, researcher Frederick Hess, writing in The American, the journal of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote: “Despite political victories, early promises about school choice have lost much of their luster. . . . There is little evidence that voucher or choice programs have succeeded in fostering the emergence of high-quality options.”

Perhaps the most significant defection came this spring from the influential Thomas B. Fordham Foundation headed by Chester Finn Jr., a former official in the George H.W. Bush administration and a leading conservative education writer and activist. Saying that voucher proponents needed to “wake up” to new political and educational realities, the foundation called for increased transparency and accountability for voucher schools.

(There is a catch, however. While the foundation said “the time has come for the school voucher movement to come to terms with the idea of accountability for participating schools,” it then went on to call for a “sliding scale” of accountability based on a school’s percentage of voucher students.)

Nor has the public ever embraced vouchers. The eight times that voucher plans have appeared on a state ballot, they have been strongly defeated. The most stinging setback came in 2007, when the heavily Republican voters in Utah rejected a voucher plan by a lopsided 62 to 38 percent.

The demise of vouchers as the conservatives’ key privatization strategy for education coincides with the failing fortunes of free-market Republicans. Although libertarians have promoted vouchers for half a century, the movement didn’t really gain a foothold until Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 and the Republican Party’s subsequent capture of state legislatures across the country.

With the future dim for publicly funded vouchers for private schools, conservatives are increasingly focusing on charter schools. While nonreligious and nominally within the public sector, charter schools are a complicated mix, run by community-based activists, education innovators, for-profit companies, and conservative privatizers.

What Now in Milwaukee?

Ever since vouchers began in Milwaukee in 1990, voucher advocates belittled the Milwaukee Public Schools, promised that vouchers were the key to improved educational opportunity, and derailed other serious reform efforts. In the process, vouchers used almost $750 million in taxpayer money, with minimal accountability in how those dollars were spent. This year, the voucher program includes roughly 125 private schools and approximately 20,000 students, each receiving $6,607 in tax dollars. While there are considered to be a number of higher-performing voucher schools, just as there are in the public schools, little is known about what happens at a number of voucher schools?even on such basics as students’ racial breakdown. The lack of accountability has become such a public policy embarrassment that even some voucher supporters are talking about accountability.

The problem, however, is that voucher supporters may be offering a “bait and switch.”

The bait? Nominally accepting accountability. The switch? Sidestepping true accountability and transparency.

If the bait and switch succeeds, it will likely have repercussions beyond Milwaukee, bolstering the Fordham Foundation’s position that a “sliding scale” of accountability is the way forward for the voucher movement.

Three issues are at the heart of accountability in Milwaukee:

  • Requiring open meetings and records for voucher schools.
  • Requiring that voucher students take the same standardized tests as public and charter schools students.
  • Addressing the crisis in special education in Milwaukee.

Open meetings and records have long been a bedrock of sound public policy. They allow the public access to information on how decisions are made about spending tax dollars, and to essential data such as a school’s racial breakdown, number of special ed students, student expulsions, graduation rates, teacher pay, and student academic achievement. Without such information, however, the public will not have access to data to learn which voucher schools are succeeding and which are not, and why.

Similarly, it is only common sense that voucher students take the same standardized tests as public school and charter students, and that each voucher school release its results, just as public schools provide a school-by-school breakdown. Regardless of the shortcomings of the test, and there are many, such a requirement is essential if all schools that receive public dollars are to be treated equitably.

Meanwhile, there has been no public discussion about issues such as voucher schools providing due process for students facing expulsion or ensuring adequate services to those who don’t speak English as their first language. Most disturbing, there has been no talk about voucher schools and special education.

While private voucher schools cannot discriminate in admitting students with special needs, they are only required to give students those services that can be provided with minor adjustments. As a result, voucher schools have few special ed students. In fact, there were more students receiving special education services at MPS’ Hamilton High School last school year than all the voucher schools in Milwaukee combined, according to data required by the federal government and collected by MPS for both public and private schools.

Overall, MPS had more than 17 percent of its students classified as special ed last year. The city’s private schools, meanwhile, had about 2 percent of their students identified as special ed, with only about half of them actively receiving special ed services.

Howard Fuller, a leader in the voucher movement both locally and nationally, has taken the public lead in saying it’s reasonable to have more accountability?for example, measures that would require a college degree for teachers in voucher schools. (Voucher supporters and Republicans had held such influence in Wisconsin that it wasn’t until 2006 that academic teachers in voucher schools were required to be high school graduates.)

But Fuller opposes the all-important measure that voucher schools adhere to the state’s open meetings and records laws, as public schools are required to do. And in a public forum at Marquette University, Fuller objected to calls that voucher students take the same standardized test as public school students.

Fuller started his political career as a Black Power advocate. Among his endeavors: former MPS superintendent; former education advisor to George W. Bush; a founder and current board chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO); founder and current head of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee; and board chair of CEO Leadership Academy, a Christian high school in Milwaukee that is part of the voucher program.

As recently as October, Fuller chastised now-President and then-candidate Barack Obama for questioning vouchers because, Obama said, there is “no proof that they work.” In a statement released by BAEO, Fuller responded: “I don’t know what he means when he questions whether or not they work. The vouchers ?work’ if they give parents the option to choose a school that they think is better for their child.”

That statement, of course, was before Obama won the election?and before the latest of many scandals afflicting the Milwaukee voucher schools. In March, for instance, a city inspector closed a building with three voucher schools because utilities had been turned off and the building was unfit for habitation. Around the same time, LaBrew Troopers Military University School, which had been in the voucher program for six years, closed without notice. The school was known for its physical discipline, such as twisting students’ arms until they would say, “I give,” or pouring water on students’ heads.

Supporting Religious Schools

While using the “bait” of concern for accountability, the “switch” is that there seems to be more concern about protecting religious schools, which account for the majority of voucher schools, than in providing essential information to parents.

The Milwaukee program started with only a handful of nonreligious, community-based schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods. That was the “bait.” But even then, influential proponents knew a “switch” was in the works and that the goal was support for the city’s financially struggling religious schools.

Consider this story from Dave Behrendt, an editor at the Milwaukee Journal during the voucher program’s beginning. As he related recently, in response to the current news on vouchers:

I have always felt that the politics of the voucher battle had a very significant subtext that rarely received mention or public attention. Way back before the program began . . . I got a phone call at the Journal from a prominent Milwaukee business executive asking to speak totally off the record. He said some well-connected Powers That Be had concluded that it was finally time to pump taxpayer dollars into the Catholic schools because that was the only way to save them. The push would be framed as an effort to help impoverished black children get a better education, but that saving the Catholic schools was the driving force. Apparently it was expected, correctly, that the Supreme Court of this state would never strike vouchers down as unconstitutional.

Although voucher supporters have been publicly reluctant to admit it, protection of religious schools is one of the main reasons they oppose accountability.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the voucher program, two issues were important if the program were not to violate the constitutional mandate to separate church and state. One, that the program not be government support of religion (which is why the voucher money nominally goes to the parent, rather than to the school). Two, that the government not tell religious schools how to operate.

With increased calls for accountability, the entanglement issue could come into play.

Say, for instance, the Wisconsin legislature asks that voucher students take the same state tests as public school students, in order to compare academic achievement. If voucher students take the state test, it might be argued that the government is shaping curriculum at a religious institution?raising concerns of government entanglement.

Voucher supporters are aware of this possibility, which is one reason they go out of their way to propose “voluntary” programs or convoluted schemes that rely on nongovernmental agencies. As Fuller told PBS in 2002, too much regulation of the voucher schools will “cause private schools to get out and then they could take us back to court on excessive government entanglement.”

Critics of the voucher program have long argued that setting up two different school systems, one private and one public but both receiving tax dollars, is bad policy.

The repercussions of the current debates on accountability go far beyond Milwaukee. If voucher supporters succeed in skirting accountability and transparency, it will enhance efforts around the country to funnel tax dollars into private schools and give new life to a movement that is clearly weakened but, just as clearly, far from dead.

Barbara Miner has been reporting and writing about the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning in 1990.