Lazy School Choice Attack Blames Parents, Shames Public Schools, Misses the Point

April 14, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Last Thursday’s Isthmus contained a pointed attack on school choice in Wisconsin. It was nothing new, especially in Madison. However, what makes this piece so special is its tremendous reliance on stale arguments that have been rattled off by opponents of school choice for decades.

The Progressive Magazine Editor-in-Chief Ruth Conniff attacked efforts to expand the state’s Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in an op-ed in the local paper’s Daily Page. In it, she led off by suggesting that conservative groups like the Bradley Foundation and Americans for Prosperity are behind the push, criticized WKCE scores in Milwaukee’s voucher schools, and then bizarrely went after charter schools – which are public schools – for accepting public funding.

It was a strange and ineffectual piece.

The lead arrow in Conniff’s quiver was that school choice is bad because conservative groups support it. If political preference were the divining rod it was meant to be here, Republicans would still be boycotting McDonald’s after President Clinton’s patronage back in the 1990s. Never mind what parents may want – they’re just being brainwashed by the right wing. They can’t be trusted to make up their own minds!

While Conniff’s main reason for the column was to attack the expansion of school choice in the city of Madison, she seemed keen to discredit the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

“Fly-by-night operators are eager to take the tax dollars that follow your child to public school. In return, they have created schools all over Milwaukee where students perform poorly (PDF) on standardized tests, compared with their public school peers. Many of those children return to the Milwaukee public schools anyway — after the voucher schools have siphoned money out of local neighborhoods and into the hands of private business operators.”

Was Conniff’s barrage on Milwaukee schools a comparison to choice in the state’s capital? There is only one school in Madison- the Lighthouse Christian Academy – that even applied to be considered for vouchers in 2014. Is Conniff suggesting that Lighthouse is a fly-by-night school that is going to take taxpayer money and run? It’s tough to tell because it seems she didn’t do any research on the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. Her suggestion also ignored recent legislation that ensures schools joining any state voucher program will be subject to greater screening in order to avoid another LifeSkills Academy debacle.

Instead, she focused on tired tropes from the war against school choice, highlighting standardized testing scores without even considering student growth. Her argument ignored data that has shown students in choice schools are more likely to graduate when they use a voucher to attend private schools in Milwaukee. The School Choice Demonstration Project, a state-mandated longitudinal look at how students grew when starting in either a voucher or traditional school, concluded that the program helped all students perform better over the course of the five-year study.

Conniff believes the problems that schools and students have had in Milwaukee should nullify the program’s expansion into Madison. In doing so, she completely ignored any successes that may have come in the MPCP and indirectly suggested that Madison’s parents aren’t capable of making decisions that would serve their children the best. But that argument looks downright reasonable when you compare it to her screed against virtual charter schools.

“The photos of smiling teens in school-like settings are charming. But the Department of Public Instruction paints a less flattering picture of Wisconsin’s virtual schools. According to the K12 Inc, the huge, nationwide virtual school operator that runs the McFarland online academy, raked in $848.2 million in 2013, almost entirely out of the public trough.”

Remember, charter schools ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS. As such, they are funded by the state. In fact, they are funded at a significantly lower per-student figure than traditional public schools throughout Wisconsin.

That $842.8 million number doesn’t apply to the “McFarland online academy” – actually known the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. That school educated students at a state cost of just $16 million in 2014. That figure accounts for 2,021 students being funded at $7,925 per pupil. It is also significantly lower than Conniff’s number.

In 2012, the last year of data that DPI has released, students in McFarland had an average annual per-pupil revenue of $13,305. To call out a charter school for its funding seems misguided, at best, in light of these figures.

And, let’s also note that the WI Virtual Academy isn’t even the school that started Conniff’s rant. That was eAchieve, a school that the author couldn’t even be bothered to follow up on, instead she substituted it with a proxy academy.

The low-hanging fruit was there. eAchieve just went through a recent downturn that saw their reading proficiency fall behind the district average. But, since that would have taken actual research instead of just repeating talking points, Conniff ignored them. Calling out publicly-funded charter schools for being publicly-funded seems to be the equivalent of running out of things to criticize.

Taking oft-repeated talking points and making those square pegs fit into round holes is certainly one way of making an argument. It’s just not an especially effective one.

Me? I would have just done some actual research instead of relying on old and outdated talking points.