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In #RaiseMKE Commentary

Want to improve a school's outcomes? Improve economic conditions for its students. (PHOTO: Bobby Tanzilo)

WILL diagnoses correct symptoms but prescribes solutions to wrong problem

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) exists for one reason: to advance a radically conservative agenda for privatizing and destroying public institutions through abusive and relentless lawsuits and threats of lawsuits.

Sometimes that means they step into my house: education policy in Wisconsin generally and Milwaukee specifically. As you can imagine, they and I do not agree on much. They have been constant critics of the Milwaukee Public Schools and allies of the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program. They would like nothing better than to see MPS dismantled brick by brick and handed over to private operators only, in particular religious institutions.

So I was surprised to find myself nodding along in agreement with the first paragraph of this post of theirs the other day:

"While the debate over failing schools has been framed as a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) problem (and MPS is certainly troubled), there are also low-performing private and charter schools. Among all schools in Milwaukee with over 80% free-and-reduced lunch and 80% African American students, the average reading proficiency is a shocking 7.3%. While charters and private school choice have helped many students, educational failure in Milwaukee is not just a sector problem. It's a Milwaukee problem."

"A Milwaukee problem." Wow! I thought, I could have written that myself! Indeed, I have. I could link to probably 50 past pieces, but I don't want to put my poor editor through the hassle. If you doubt me, try this, this, this or this.

The short version of my argument, should you not want to click through those links above, is that if better conditions existed in the City of Milwaukee for our children – more jobs, less crime, better health, universal quality pre-K, books in every home, etc. – the outcomes we see in schools would improve. Not linked above is my recent OnMilwaukee column pointing out that in Wisconsin, as across the nation, the single best predictor of a school district's academic success is the income of its families. This is a legacy of this country's long history of racism and economic policy favoring the haves rather than the have-nots.

Want to improve a school's outcomes? Improve economic conditions for its students. Period.

What the WILL authors, Colin Roth and Will Flanders, diagnose here as the symptom – that poor, minority urban students routinely achieve well below their wealthier, whiter suburban counterparts across all education sectors in Milwaukee – is one hundred percent accurate.

But their very next sentence prescribes a solution for a completely different problem than the one of economic and societal inequality: "We wonder whether these issues could be addressed with an 'enhanced voucher,' targeted at students attending failing schools regardless of sector."

I kept reading though, giving Roth and Flanders the benefit of the doubt. "Voucher" sure is a trigger word for me, but given the quality of that opening paragraph, I thought, it's entirely possible that what they're proposing is something I could support rather than, you know, the voucher program that they already support.

Sadly, no. An "enhanced voucher" is simply another iteration of what already exists in Milwaukee – that is, the single most extensive marketplace for school choice in the country. This city has no fewer than five fully taxpayer-funded sectors: MPS, independent schools chartered through MPS, schools chartered through the city, schools chartered through UW-Milwaukee and the voucher program. It's six if you count inter-district open enrollment, which gives Milwaukee students the ability to attend schools in other cities like Shorewood, Wauwatosa or St. Francis for free.

This new "enhanced voucher" is literally more of the same conservative solutions that in the last 25 years have failed to move the needle on student achievement in Milwaukee. Except, they argue, "it adds services and programming and the expectation of results" (their italics). Yes, people, you are reading that right. What would make this new voucher different is that parents and students both would expect the schools they choose to be successful! Yippee!

It may take a moment for that level of stupid to settle in, so let me take a step back now. This WILL post I'm discussing is actually part two of a three-part series in which the group "will investigate ways for improving Milwaukee's failing education system." Part one, you'll be unsurprised to learn, also advocates a new kind of voucher, an "education savings account." That post, written by Flanders with WILL's CJ Szafir, fully admits to being "School Choice 2.0."

But because it's their first post, WILL also needs to lay some groundwork, which they do mostly by abusing statistics and touting their own debunked research. For example, they try to create outrage by saying MPS "ranks 13th in the country in per-pupil spending among districts with more than 40,000 students." This is an old, old trick for critics of MPS (and for logical fallacy fans everywhere), cherry-picking data or presenting data out of context to create a false impression. "Thirteenth in the nation," MPS-haters will scoff, "that's way too high!"

There are, in total, only 29 districts in the country with 40,000 students or more, according to the very source they cite, which puts Milwaukee at the 45th percentile in that group. Right about average. WILL's implication that MPS's spending is outrageously high sounds dumb when you rephrase it to say that MPS's spending is average for a district its size.

Their data is also out of date: It's from a 2014 release of U.S. Census Bureau data that covers the 2011-2012 school year. More recent census data show MPS slipping in its national ranking for per-student spending as many states not named Wisconsin have returned to funding schools at or higher than pre-Great Recession levels.

Szafir and Flanders also make great hay about a WILL study purporting to show that non-MPS schools are more "efficient" than other schools. The study was massively flawed, as both I (eighth letter down) and actual professional education researchers pointed out. According to them, the best option for parents, students and taxpayers alike is spending less on MPS.

They go so far as to argue that if a student wants to use her "educational savings account," valued at less than current MPS per-student funding, at an MPS school, MPS "would not be given any additional funding beyond the ESA when taking on an ESA student." Or maybe, they say, we should "explicitly ban ESA participants from using public school services."

So, to sum up, that's two out of three posts from WILL (the third has not yet dropped) proposing to strip Milwaukee's public schools of students and funding, further weakening the only one of the five sectors Milwaukee has that is required to teach all students regardless of ability or disability, regardless of their willingness to learn or readiness for school, whatever disadvantage they may come from. The only one.

Put another way, WILL blames MPS schools, administrators and teachers for the problems we didn't create, but ourselves struggle to overcome every day, and argue as a consequence that MPS must be punished.

This is doubly frustrating, for in that "part one" post, just as in "part two," Szafir and Flanders make some very reasonable points. "Education scholarship shows that the time disadvantaged students spend out of school is one of the key causes of the achievement gap," they write, and then talk about wrap-around services outside of school hours and summer enrichment programs as ways of working to close that gap. I agree completely with both their summary of the research and their recommendations there.

But rather than advocate for, say, a more aggressive expansion of the MPS community schools model (which they praise, even though Szafir in particular threw a hissy fit when Demond Means proposed to implement one through the OSPP), they instead advocate stripping MPS of resources.

They don't argue for something so easy – and relatively revenue neutral – as repealing the state law mandating public schools can't begin the school year before September 1. I'm an MPS teacher, and I would in a heartbeat support shortening summer break by, for example, trimming 20 minutes from every school day and starting school in mid-August while ending at the same time in mid-June. That cuts the time when a "summer slide" might occur by 20 percent and eases burdens on the crowded and underfunded summer programs that do exist. But MPS is legally prohibited from doing something that simple; WILL's friends in the legislature could change that tomorrow if they wanted.

Mostly, though, all of this is just damning evidence that WILL, the Republican lawmakers they ally with and the conservative foundations that fund them aren't really interested in addressing the roots of Milwaukee's educational challenges or empowering the largest player in their "marketplace," MPS, to make the kind of changes we know can actually work. That's because they aren't really interested in acknowledging this state's (and this country's) debilitating economic inequality and long history of legal and institutional racism.

The real answer, the one I would prescribe, is fully dismantling the system that benefits and privileges WILL's clients and benefactors at the expense of the children of Milwaukee, and instead helping this city's residents this city's public schools fix, really fix – as someone smart once put it – the "Milwaukee problem."


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