Three weeks ago, Wisconsin Representative Bob Turner (D-Racine) submitted a Letter to the Editor describing his opposition to expanding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).  To someone unfamiliar with school choice, this letter could be confusing or, even worse, misleading.  He does note that “parental involvement is the key to our students’ educational achievement,” a statement with which few would argue.  Curiously, he opposes vouchers, even though a district’s participation in a voucher program would necessarily increase parental involvement. Turner argues against the MPCP because “the standards for participating voucher schools are minimal. They may employ teachers with no training and only a GED, and administrators without a high school or college degree.” If the schools are so bad – filled with incompetent and unqualified teachers and administrators – no parents with the ability to choose their children’s schools, as vouchers would give them, would send their children there, so what’s to fear?    Opposition to the voucher program on these grounds reflects a complete lack of confidence in parents’ ability to make the right choice on behalf of their children.  No one has a greater interest in holding schools accountable than parents.   Rep. Turner claims that parental involvement is the key to success, yet he doesn’t want them to have the opportunity to decide where their children go to school.

In explaining another reason for his opposition, Turner claims, “The current pending state budget bill, 2011-13 Senate Bill 27, will expand the Milwaukee parental choice program to all school districts in Milwaukee County.  This will have the effect of more affluent families taking advantage of this program so that their children can attend a school that hand picks the best students possible and limits, or does not accept, any special needs students.”  (Emphasis is my own.)  This statement is particularly troubling, as it 1) inaccurately characterizes access to vouchers and 2) misleads people into thinking that the wealthy and not the intended beneficiaries of vouchers, namely poor families, will benefit most.  In actuality, for families to take advantage of the program, they have to qualify for a voucher; to qualify for a voucher, a family must fall below a certain income level.  Even with the income eligibility raised to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (~ $68,000 for a family of four), affluent families – ones who by definition have an abundance of money, goods, property, etc. – will simply not qualify.  A family income of $68,000 a year is nothing to scoff at, but it should not be confused with affluence.  Many more families than before will directly benefit from the expansion of the voucher program…just not affluent ones.

He also calls into question the success of voucher programs, boldly claiming that “the results of the testing [Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination] showed that voucher students scored the same or worse as students attending a Milwaukee public school.”  With no reference to where he obtained this information, one has reason to be skeptical.  (Side note: critiquing the efficacy of a voucher program simply by comparing all voucher students to students attending a Milwaukee public school is misguided and does not account for other factors at play.  Students who take advantage of vouchers are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and therefore they would be expected to initially score at lower levels than public school students – a group that would include both disadvantaged students and ones who come from families of greater means.)  As it turns out, research conducted by John Witte and Patrick Wolfe demonstrates that – after looking at carefully matched sets of students in the choice program and in Milwaukee public schools – the MPCP has been successful.  Among the findings were the following:

  1. Competitive pressure from the voucher program has produced modest achievement gains in MPS
  2. The three-year achievement gains of choice students have been comparable to those of our matched sample of MPS students
  3. High school students in the choice program both graduate and enroll in four-year colleges at a higher rate than do similar students in MPS

The claims that voucher programs are not producing academic benefits are simply not accurate.

Lastly, Rep. Turner writes, “With the Racine Unified School District receiving the second largest projected budget cut in the state, over $11 million in school aid and over $40 million in revenue reduction, we cannot allow additional voucher schools to be started in Racine.”  He makes the not-so-subtle suggestion (given his intentional bolding of the figures) that the voucher program will cost the state money at a time when money is already hard to come by.  As it turns out, the Milwaukee Choice Program saved the state of Wisconsin an estimated $52 million in Fiscal Year 2001.  If anything, given the financial benefits Wisconsin could receive, the numbers Turner provides offer economic justification to an issue where the moral justification (giving disadvantaged children increased access to more schools) already suffices.

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