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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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GreatSchools.org rated LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee a 1 out of 10.
GreatSchools.org rated LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee a 1 out of 10.

The guy who hates school vouchers

You probably heard­­ a voucher school, LifeSkills Academy, closed last week. That story, a surprisingly common one, is usually just a local story, but Erin Richards' reporting in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Last week rocketed around the country in no small part because of the lurid headline­­"Milwaukee Voucher School Closes 'in the Dead of Night.'"

The story made it to national websites like Raw Story and caught the attention of leading education­reform critic Diane Ravitch. When Richards found the operators of the school living and running a voucher school in sunny Florida, the shock factor ratcheted up considerably.

But anybody who's watched the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, known colloquially as the voucher program, was not surprised by this development. I certainly was not.

It might be time now, a few columns into this new gig at OnMilwaukee, to properly introduce myself to you, my new readers. Short version: I'm The Guy Who Hates Vouchers.

I mean, yeah, there's probably more than one person out there who hates vouchers, but I have pretty much made it my Internet Mission to stop vouchers.

I've been writing online since 2003, which is about 120 years in blog time, first at my own place and then at other local sites like Blogging Blue and SchoolMattersMKE, and a few national sites, too. I write a monthly column for the Bay View Compass. I've been on TV and in the daily paper and on panels at various conferences. And in all that time, I've had an almost singular focus of arguing against the Milwaukee voucher program.

I recognize that most of that turned out to be shouting into the wind, as I obviously haven't been able to kill it dead. But I am at least leaving behind documentary evidence along the way of the program's failures and failings, so that when future historians, assuming SkyNet hasn't wiped all the hard drives, want to know why for two generations Milwaukee and Wisconsin sent taxpayer dollars to a system that remains largely unaccountable and unsuccessful in changing the quality of education in this city.

Seriously: If the Milwaukee voucher program were its own school district, it would be Wisconsin's third largest behind Milwaukee and Madison (and on track to overtake Madison in a year or two). But we taxpayers have exactly zero elected oversight of the program, as there is no school board that manages the voucher program.

For more than two decades, the LifeSkills Academies (and Texas Buffkins and Alex's Academics of Excellences and Ceria Travises and Right Steps and CrossTrainers and on and on) of Milwaukee have been allowed to open, suck up taxpayer funds, and spit out children worse off than had they stayed even in low­ performing MPS schools. The lawmakers who support this, almost universally Republican and not from Milwaukee, have never seemed interested in legislating real oversight.

As bad as schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools can be (and here is as good a place as any to add the standard disclaimer that MPS is far from perfect and yes, I am as much a critic of what MPS has done wrong over the years), no MPS school is going to close "in the dead of night" or use 30­year­old photocopied texts, as a parent reviewer noted about LifeSkills Academy earlier this year. No MPS school is going to let its teachers go unpaid so long that they quit and leave students to be babysat by the school leaders' relatives, as seems to happen a lot at voucher schools. No MPS school gets a pass for having no or almost no proficient students.

In general, MPS's state test results exceed those for voucher schools: 15 percent of MPS students are proficient or advanced in reading, compared to 11 percent of voucher students, according to the most recent data from the state. In math, MPS has 21 percent of students proficient or advanced, vouchers 13 percent. Both, of course, are well behind the state average, which is 37 percent for reading and 48 percent for math. ­­I don't want anyone to think I believe the numbers for the public schools are anything but outrageously low, too.

And, yes, there are schools in both systems that regularly beat the state averages­­: Rufus King, Reagan, Fernwood Montessori, St. John's Lutheran, Tamarack Waldorf, Marquette University High School. And, yes, many schools in both systems do lots of good work with students that is not necessarily reflected in test scores. But scrolling the list of scores on the voucher report card (pdf) there is an overwhelming lack of proficiency that you just don't see in MPS.

Much of this is, as I argued in a 2012 in a post subtly titled "The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: A Failure," because teaching poor children already behind in achievement is hard to do. (I do it every day. Trust me on this.) But the voucher system's perpetual embrace (or willful ignorance) of schools like LifeSkills Academy is a failing that no public system should­­ or would­­ tolerate.

I guess what I mean is, if you're paying attention, you, too, should be The Guy (or Gal, as applicable) Who Hates Vouchers. And you should stop being surprised by these stories and, instead, join me in lobbying for an end to this disastrous program, as soon as possible.

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