School Choice Critics Fail to Back Up Recycled Claims

May 28, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

There has been a lot of debate over the proposed voucher expansion in the 2013-2015 state budget. Unfortunately, much of it seems to have come from the same talking points memo. The majority of the opposition to school choice seems to boil down to the identical set of arguments that have been thrown around since the advent of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. In more than 20 years of experience, these tired arguments have lost some of their steam.

A look at the press releases that have flooded Madison in the past three months reveals a grocery list of complaints that rarely break new ground. These complaints have been levied for years and countered for nearly as long. Here is a look at some of the arguments that have been levied against school choice this spring, along with the common sense responses that address their issues.

“Based on this language, the Madison School District would as failing [SIC], and therefore open to voucher expansion. As a result, Madison tax dollars would be invested in private, unaccountable schools, rather than its public schools.” – Senators Fred Risser (D-Madison), Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), and Mark Miller (D-Monona), May 14, 2013.

“Unaccountable” is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit in the voucher debate. However, just because these schools don’t have the bureaucratic oversight of regular public schools doesn’t mean that they aren’t held up to high standards.

Voucher schools, with less than half the funding of regular public schools, are held accountable by the parents and students they serve. Without a cache of neighborhood students who are geographically tied to their classrooms, they need every student that they can find in order to keep their doors open. Every student that chooses not to attend their school puts them one step closer to being shut down.

As a result, parents have the ultimate accountability over these institutions – if they are unhappy with the education provided in these schools, they have the power to leave. If enough parents feel that way, these schools will become unsustainable, and quickly. With 80 percent of these students bringing in meager, state-based tuition funding, every student plays a key role in keeping the lights on in these schools.

Additionally, Governor Scott Walker expressed hope that the state’s new School Report Cards could soon apply to voucher schools. These grades would give these institutions an accountability score on par with the traditional and charter public schools in Wisconsin. This aspect is something that legislators and the Department of Public Instruction have been working on with voucher school officials for several years. With stronger standards and better measurements for student growth on the horizon, a more comprehensive method of grading voucher, charter, and traditional public schools may just be a year away.

“Children attending public schools perform better than kids attending voucher schools so it is mindboggling that Governor Walker is squeezing every last penny from our neighborhood public schools,” – Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison), April 9, 2013.

Racine’s school choice program has been an excellent case study in showing that vouchers reach the students that need them the most – students that are falling behind their peers and failing to achieve in traditional public schools. Here’s what we had to say about Racine’s low test scores in the first year of the program – a compilation of testing data that applied to students who came from the city’s public schools and had less than a month of instruction in their new private school environments:

The 2011-2012 release of WKCE data also marked the second year that choice schools were evaluated through standardized testing. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and Racine’s Parental Private School Choice Program (PPSCP) both trailed their public school counterparts in reading and math as a whole, though the data presented by the WKCE only counts a student’s knowledge through October.

For a choice program like Racine’s, these figures may tell more about a student’s background coming into the first year of a voucher school system rather than their progress to date. Racine’s PPSCP population posted proficiency numbers that lagged behind their regular public school counterparts, but since the WKCE is given so early in the year, it’s difficult to gauge just what impact – if any – their new schools have made on these scores.

Rather, low proficiency scores in the program’s first year just give a baseline of where the students entering the PPSCP are coming from. With noticeably lower scores, these figures should put to rest any idea that voucher schools in Racine are only taking away the cream of the crop from Racine Unified’s traditional schools.

“We cannot continue to expand funding for a second school system in Wisconsin, especially given the fact that the private voucher schools in Wisconsin do not perform as well as our public schools,” – Representative Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains), May 22, 2013.

In more than 20 years of operation, there has only been one apples to apples comparison of student growth between similarly matched students from MPS and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). That study – the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), a state-mandated longitudinal look at the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, showed very few statistically significant differences between the two groups of pupils. What they did find was that voucher students were 4-7 percent more likely to graduate, attend a four-year college, and stay in that college than their peers. While factors like parental involvement may have played a role, the study strongly suggests that these schools were a significant force behind the improved attainment of the students that chose vouchers.

One thing is clear – there’s no evidence that these voucher schools are hurting students, despite having only 50 percent or less of the funding that their traditional public school peers have had in Milwaukee. As the state’s data collection and standards improve and we learn more about student growth and the impact that individual teachers have, we’ll develop a better understanding of where MPS and MPCP schools stand in terms of serving students on a year-to-year basis.

“The problem with the voucher system, aside from siphoning money away from public schools, is that it is a private system that receives public money but is not held to public school standards. These schools can pick and choose students, shutting out disabled students and non-traditional learners.” – Senators Risser, Erpenbach, and Miller, May 14, 2013.

Voucher schools need every student that they can find in order to gain funding and keep their doors open. For evidence of this, just take a look at what happened in Racine’s first year with a voucher program. If these schools were going to exclude low performing students, wouldn’t the schools in Racine have “cherry picked” a stronger crop of pupils?

In terms of special needs students, the SCDP suggests that special education numbers are severely understated in private schools. Since these schools don’t require Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), many students with disabilities are not reported to the state. The SCDP Year Five study suggests that there are at least four times more special needs students in the MPCP than DPI reports have suggested.

Furthermore, suggesting that private schools have more power to remove students than public schools is a myth. Public schools have always had the power to expel students, and losing students, especially with the state’s declining enrollment count, is a blow that public schools can absorb more easily than most private institutions in the MPCP or PPSCP. Voucher schools, which are already spread thin thanks to low tuition numbers set by the state voucher, are often in a more perilous position when it comes to losing students and the funding associated with them.

In fact, recent data uncovered by the American Federation for Children suggest that open enrollment transfers may discriminate against more special needs students that are looking for new schools than voucher schools do. Districts can reject potential transfer students by claiming “undue financial burden” thanks to the costs associated with educating these exceptional students. In 2012-2013, more than 42 percent of open enrollment applications submitted on behalf of special needs students were rejected.

“The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has called the first year of the school report cards a “pilot year,” and because the report cards are new, the grading calculations need to be further refined. Legislators of both parties also have said the one-year-old report cards should not be used to draw long-term conclusions about the performance of schools.” – Green Bay Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld, April 28, 2013.

The School Report Cards, which were adopted as a larger part of the state’s transition from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations, may be in their infancy, but voucher decisions won’t be based on the pilot year of the program. District eligibility will be decided by the second year of report card data, which will come in the summer of 2013. As far as using these grades for high stakes decision making, the state Department of Public Instruction had no problem using these reports to back grants that would go towards struggling schools.

Wisconsin’s NCLB waiver relied on these report cards to replace old “adequate yearly progress” measurements that often told educational stakeholders little about how their local schools were performing. With these report cards, schools are graded in four different categories that include student achievement and student growth. With higher standards already in place for future years, a more comprehensive testing program for grades K-8, and the probably adoption of ACT Suite testing for high schools, these report cards will be able to tell Wisconsinites more about their local institutions than ever before.

These report cards were also intended to be indicators of school performance that could be tied to funding. In the waiver itself, DPI wrote that these grades would allow the state to tie incentives to “high progress schools” and “exemplary schools.” In this regard, these report cards were high-stakes enough to reward the best performing schools with performance-based grants.

The Department also reinforced the idea of using report cards as a financial lever when they requested funding for competitive grants based on school grades. DPI asked for $9.3 million in state money for low performing schools. Under their proposal, schools with “meets few expectations” or “fails to meet expectations” grades would have been eligible for intervention-based grants. In this case, these report cards were deemed high-stakes enough to merit additional funding.

“According to the Department of Public Instruction, we have 97,488 students currently enrolled in private schools in Wisconsin but not receiving a taxpayer‐funded voucher. If we multiply that number by the current voucher payment of $6,442, we get just over $628 million.

But the governor’s proposal would increase the voucher payment to $7,050 for K‐8 students and $7,856 for high school students. So, just for perspective, if we multiply the private school enrollment figure by $7,050, we get over $687 million. And if we multiply the enrollment figure by $7,856, we get almost $766 million. Clearly, voucher expansion would be a large and growing fiscal commitment for Wisconsin taxpayers.” – John Forester, Director of Government Relations for the School Administrators Alliance, May 7, 2013.

Forester’s response runs down a future scenario that is unlikely to happen. He envisions a voucher program without limitations and ignores the current reality of 2013’s proposed expansion. The income limit – 300 percent of the poverty line – still exists. Limitations on what students can accept vouchers, which essentially prevent students that already attend private schools from using state funds to continue on that path, are in place as well. Forester’s op-ed is like a dystopian vision intent on fear mongering. It ignores the realities of what is actually being proposed.

“As private charter schools and voucher schools expand, more and more funding is pulled directly away from your community and your local schools.” – Tom Beebe, President, Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, March 2013.

In a voucher program, the money – in fact, less public money than it takes traditional schools to educate a child – follows the pupil. Otherwise, these schools would be taking funds for students that they aren’t educating. However, when students leave for a voucher program (or under open enrollment, or just by moving to a different city), that district’s per-pupil funding actually goes up.

That is thanks to the state’s declining enrollment counts, which serve to cushion the blow of losing students. The state uses enrollment numbers that span a three-year mean to create a rolling average when figuring out the pupil count to fund a district. As a result, a student that leaves his or her public school also leaves two-thirds of his or her funding behind in the first year. In the second year, that number drops to one-third. Though the overall amount of funding drops, the per-student number increases thanks to this accounting practice.

Additionally, the state’s relatively low voucher amounts have paved the way for significant savings that have been poured into districts across Wisconsin. According to the SCDP, the MPCP has saved taxpayers more than $300 million over its lifetime. In 2011-2012, these savings reached nearly $50 million in a single year thanks to the expansion of Milwaukee’s voucher program.

“80 percent of Wisconsin school districts receive less general state aid per pupil than the amount about 24,500 students in voucher schools can receive to attend private schools.” – Step Up for Public Schools, April 2013.

Voucher students ONLY get state aid. Public schools get a mixture of state, local, and federal funding. As a result, 100% of public schools get more per-student funding than these voucher students. When you look at the overall scope of what taxpayers contribute for tuition, traditional public schools get significantly more money than voucher schools. Here’s what the state’s overall per-student funding numbers looked like, on average, in 2011-2012:

Revenue per Member, Statewide: $12,591
Revenue per Member, Milwaukee Public Schools: $14,271 (state funding: $7,599)
Revenue per Member, Racine Unified Public Schools: $11,987 (state funding: $6,766)
Revenue per Member, MPCP: $6,442
Revenue per Member, PPSCP: $6,442

Complaining about voucher funding levels when these schools get about half the public money that regular public schools get seems a bit misguided. Even the state funding in the two districts that currently have voucher programs was more than the total funding that these students received to attend private schools.

Expect these arguments to be repeated this Wednesday at the Joint Finance Committee hearing and beyond. The anti-voucher talking points are pretty clear, and they tend to all walk the same line (unless you take the Forester approach and rail against a reform that isn’t actually being proposed). However, they’re also easily refuted with facts and data, and while concerns like accountability and costs seem like attention-grabbing headlines, there’s very little substance behind them.