In #RaiseMKE Commentary

If public schools' failures are so serious that lawmakers must dismantle the district, then they must see the failures in the voucher system are equally serious (PHOTO: Bobby Tanzilo)

Why no "opportunity" for Milwaukee's voucher schools?

Last week, Wisconsin's Joint Finance Committee passed a 29-page Republican-penned omnibus education funding package, which includes so many terrible provisions it's hard to know where to begin.

Among the worst was the "Opportunity Schools Partnership Plan," a nuclear warhead aimed squarely at the Milwaukee Public Schools, passed over opposition from all Milwaukee legislators and without a single minute of public hearing on the matter. It removes schools from the authority of MPS and places them into the hands of private operators under the eye of an unelected "commissioner."

Within that plan lies an interesting provision that would allow the state to create additional "opportunity schools" plans in other school districts besides MPS, districts of at least 15,000 students and that overall fail to meet expectations in accountability ratings from the Department of Public Instruction. Early speculation is that this is aimed at Racine, which enrolls about 18,000 students and currently rates a "meets few expectations" grade from DPI, just one rank above the "fails to meet expectations" mark.

But the inclusion of such a provision in the funding bill has me again thinking about something deeply frustrating to me, writing as a persistent critic of the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program. This year, MPCP schools enrolled more than 26,000 voucher students. That would make it the state's second-largest taxpayer-funded school district if – and this is a big if – if it were considered a single school district. It is not.

Milwaukee's 113 voucher schools exist essentially as separate entities, though groups like the Archdiocese of Milwaukee do oversee some collections of schools. But there is no superintendent, no elected school board, not even an unelected "commissioner" who oversees the schools in the program, monitors their performance and responds to public feedback.

Sure, you say, but remember that these are private schools, and we can't have government breathing down the necks of private and religious groups!

Except most of the enrollment in Milwaukee's voucher schools is voucher students. According to DPI, among all 113 schools in the program this year, 80 percent of their students attend on taxpayer money. One in five schools enroll only voucher students, with dozens more almost completely voucher students. Two-thirds of the schools have voucher enrollments of 80 percent or more, and only 20 have fewer than half of their students on vouchers. These are schools that, overwhelmingly, are not truly private anymore; they should not be treated as such.

Further, if the MPCP schools were treated as a district, its DPI accountability score would be "fails to meet expectations." On average, voucher students score lower than their MPS peers: 12 percent of students scored proficient or better in reading in 2013-2014 (16 percent for MPS) and 15 percent scored proficient or better in math (20 percent for MPS).

Because not every MPS student would qualify for a voucher, it might be fair to do a more apples-to-apples comparison. The local paper did just that recently and found that even comparing high-poverty, high-minority enrollment schools, voucher schools clustered near the bottom of the rankings more than MPS did.

Here's my point: If MCPC were a district, it would likely qualify for an "opportunity schools partnership plan" like the one being thrust upon the public schools in Milwaukee and soon, I imagine, in Racine. MPCP enrollment is large enough and has poor enough achievement that there's not even a question they would qualify. Some "commissioner" should be able to step in, close down the lowest-performing voucher schools and hand them over to some other entity – the public schools, maybe? – that believes it can do a better job educating those students.

Such a thing never will happen, though, because Republican legislators and influential big-money funnels like School Choice Wisconsin and the American Federation for Children have long argued against holding voucher schools to the same standards that public schools are held to. For decades, GOP lawmakers and lobbyists have resisted even the most basic of calls for accountability, things like requiring teachers to have college degrees and giving their students the same tests as the rest of the state. While DPI, in Madison, has some small authority to regulate voucher schools based on, essentially, paperwork compliance, no person or group in Milwaukee has any authority to oversee, manage and enforce standards of conduct or achievement in voucher schools.

Indeed, Republicans see voucher schools as sacrosanct, as magic unicorn factories powered by rainbows and fairy dust, despite what seems like a never-ending string of voucher school failures and catastrophes. Another one came to light last week, for example. Daughters of the Father Christian Academy enrolls only taxpayer-funded voucher students; according to to DPI, it has exactly two students proficient in reading and one in math. And last week we learned that, despite an additional influx of money from MPS itself, the school couldn't pay its bills and was literally leaving students stranded.

I am undoubtedly overdue at this point for one of my standard disclaimers: Yes, yes, I know that almost everyone involved in MPCP, as in MPS, has the best of intentions and wants desperately for Milwaukee's children to be successful.

Yet if the public schools' failures are serious enough that lawmakers insist on dismantling the district and handing pieces over to other operators, including voucher schools, then they must be made to see that failures within the voucher system are equally serious. Fairness requires those schools be held to the same standards and be subject to the same sanctions and, in Republican double-speak, "opportunities" as MPS. Even an unelected commissioner would provide more public accountability to this group of schools than at any previous moment in its 25-year history.

As long as Republicans refuse to face the voucher program's problems and leave them almost completely unaccountable, taxpayer-funded schools will continue to fail their students with impunity.

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