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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Failure of Vouchers

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After Wisconsin has poured hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into private school vouchers for the past 18 years, the first comparison of student performance reveals that the program hasn’t made any difference in the education of poor children. Students in Milwaukee Public Schools and private schools receiving vouchers not only perform about the same, but both groups perform worse than about two- thirds of the students in the nation.

How can this happen in a state that claims to value education so much that it is willing to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into an educational experiment without even bothering to check whether it is making any difference for nearly two decades? The proponents of private school vouchers have never wanted to compare the performance of voucher students to students in MPS, and now we know why. After publicly trashing public schools, voucher proponents wanted the assumption to be, well, of course poor children would get a better education in private schools.

That’s why rich folks pay to send their children to private schools instead of public schools. If taxpayers would help fund private schools, they would not only be helping rich folks pay for education, but private schools would graciously open their doors to poor children.

After more than a decade and a half, the only reason voucher proponents finally agreed to allow private school performance to be examined was that Gov. Jim Doyle insisted that it be part of an agreement to raise a cap on the number of children permitted to attend private schools using tax funds.

Even then, voucher supporters tried to load the dice by making sure one of the researchers was John Witte, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who has conducted pro-voucher research in the past. But there was no way to bury the facts.

Comparing standardized test results of voucher students and a matched set of MPS students, researchers found that fourthgrade voucher students scored “somewhat lower” than MPS students and eighth-grade students scored “somewhat higher.”

Overall, they found “relative parity” between MPS and private school students in educating poor children. Not only was performance the same, it was miserable. At every grade level, poor students in either school system scored in or near the bottom third nationally.

Clearly, the raging battle between provoucher forces and public schools has produced exactly nothing as far as improving education for the children who need it the most.

Questionable Motives
The motives behind many pro-voucher supporters were always highly suspect. We’re not talking about poor parents who choose to send their children to private schools. No one can blame any parent for trying to get the best possible education for his or her child. And dealing with the bureaucracy of the Milwaukee Public Schools can test any parent.

We had a running discussion on my radio show on 1290 WMCS about teachers who refuse to let students take textbooks home. All the homework is on work sheets. That means parents who want to help their children with homework don’t have textbooks, which could be used to explain or review concepts a child doesn’t understand.

When schools worry more about children losing or harming books than about helping them learn the contents, the whole point of education is lost. To many people, the most curious supporters of vouchers have been right-wing Republicans, who have never shown a desire to spend any tax money to help poor people. Then again, people have assumed all along that vouchers had something to do with improving the education of poor children.

They don’t. As the first comparison of performance under the voucher program shows, poor children receive equally poor educations whether they attend private schools or public schools. So if poor children don’t perform any better, what is the point of the voucher program? That’s easy. Follow the money.

There used to be two separate school systems in this state. One was a public school system that was funded by the taxpayers. The other was a private school system that was paid for by parents, religious denominations and other private interests. This year, the taxpayers are not only paying 100% for public schools, but they also are paying $120 million for private schools.

The danger of vouchers to public education isn’t that private schools are competing with MPS by doing a better job of educating poor children. Both systems are doing a lousy job of that. But now there’s less tax money for public schools, which educate the overwhelming majority of poor children. And meanwhile, private schools get a nice, fat, taxpayer subsidy of $120 million a year without doing anything to improve the education of poor children.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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