Sen. Chris Larson Misguided on Disapproval of School Choice Expansion

June 21, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

On Thursday, Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) voiced his displeasure with voucher schools in Wisconsin. He compared the schools to one team in a pickup basketball game. According to Larson, these schools can pick all the players they want, reject the ones they don’t, and leave the rest for the other team to play with. The other team, in this case, would be traditional public schools. His message was simple – voucher schools get to cream the best students from the crop.

It was a nice analogy. It was also completely misguided.

Voucher schools aren’t like a basketball team. They don’t get to pick and choose the best and brightest and leave the scraps behind for the public schools. They don’t get to pick at all – they only get to be chosen. The students that choose these schools have to have a reason to leave the classrooms that they’re currently in. If they’re performing well, doesn’t that severely limit their impetus to change teams?

Let’s go back to that idea that these schools are picking first and picking unfairly. The students that choose these schools have to opt to go there. Rather than just looking at a group of students and pulling the ones that they’d like to educate, they have to accept the ones that actively seek out their school. And, once their available slots are filled, they can’t just pick the applicants they want. That decision is left to a lottery process. And don’t suggest that public schools have to educate every child that walks through their doors. Aside from expulsion, a look at open enrollment records shows that schools reject special education students due to cost on a regular basis.

But let’s think about the kids that would apply, and let’s use Sen. Larson’s basketball analogy. If a player is a part of a winning team, why would they leave? Isn’t it more likely that the players that are seeking out a new environment are coming from places that they didn’t succeed in the past? Remember, Kobe Bryant didn’t want to leave the Lakers when they were winning championships. His trade rumblings only grew when Los Angeles started losing games.

The first year of data in Racine’s PPSCP seems to bear that out. In the program’s pilot year, students lagged far behind their RUSD peers. That seems like it would be an indictment on the voucher schools until you take a deeper look at the test. These students, all of whom came directly from traditional public schools in the prior year, were tested in October – just one month into their private school experience. Don’t these low scores say more about where these students had come from rather than the one month of learning they’d had in the PPSCP? This makes the argument that the children that opted for vouchers in Racine were the exact students that needed them the most.

Of course, the list of potential applicants has been culled as well. Income limits cut down the list of students that can apply for vouchers. In Milwaukee and Racine, it’s 300% of the Federal Poverty Level for families. In the new statewide expansion, it’s 185% of that figure, or the threshold for a student to receive free or reduced lunch at their school.

And speaking of limits, this new voucher expansion is contained to 500 students in its first year and 1,000 from that point on. No district can lose more than 1% of its students to voucher schools. That expansion represents about 4% of the current voucher population. It’s .02% of the state’s entire public school population. That’s a pretty small group to pick your team from.

But let’s go back to Sen. Larson’s basketball analogy. In this case, the Lakers are traditional public schools and the Celtics are these voucher schools. And, in this case, every potential free agent has played with the Lakers and they have to file their paperwork with the league to specifically notify them that they’ll be leaving to play for the Celtics.

If these players are unhappy enough to leave the Lakers, they’ll have to meet certain criteria first. They can’t make too much money. And if too many players want to leave, they’ll be subject to a random lottery first.

And, oh yeah, the Celtics get half the money that the Lakers do to hire coaches and trainers, upgrade their facilities, and keep their arena intact.

In that situation, who do you think gets the best players? The Laker team that has the enormous base of athletes – including successful athletes with little reason for good players on a winning team to leave? Or the Celtic team that provides an alternative but faces major restrictions on who they can sign, along with a random lottery if their team is too popular and has too many interested players – a process that hardly seems like getting first pick on the playground?

That’s an actually accurate comparison of voucher schools to basketball.

Analogies are a fun way to infuse an argument, but only when they’re rooted in reality. It may have just been the hours of debate wearing on him, but Chris Larson’s was totally inaccurate. Voucher schools aren’t anything like an unfairly stacked pickup basketball game. These schools are for the students that need to find a new environment that can provide the education that they need. It’s not about getting the best and brightest, it’s about getting the students that fit and giving them the tools they need to not only catch up, but excel. The Senator’s analysis ignored all that in favor of a simple comparison that was entirely off base.