Monday, September 29, 2008
EVEN THE RIGHT IS FINDING CHARTERS & VOUCHERS TO BE SUBPRIME
Frederick M Hess, American Enterprise Institute - Milwaukee's voucher program initially allowed a few hundred students to attend local private schools with public scholarships. When it was launched, advocates voiced expansive claims on behalf of "choice." In 1990, scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe argued in their seminal volume Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, "Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. . . . It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways."
The record of markets in advancing prosperity, opportunity, and innovation is compelling. It seemed almost axiomatic that market reforms would deliver similar results in schooling, spurring the emergence of good schools and pushing traditional districts to improve.
Yet things have not worked out as intended. Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a champion of choice-based reform since the 1980s, has voiced "growing sympathy" with choice skeptics and warned against "too much trust in market forces. . .
Even staunch proponents of school choice are conceding disappointment. Earlier this year, Weekly Standard contributor Daniel Casse reported, "The two most recent studies show that, since the implementation of the voucher program, reading scores across all Milwaukee schools are falling." Howard Fuller, patron saint of the voucher program, has wryly acknowledged, "I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn't been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought." Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern, one-time choice enthusiast and author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, brought the concerns to a boiling point earlier this year when he declared, "Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tried in any urban school district [there is] . . . no ‘Milwaukee miracle,' no transformation of the public schools has taken place.". . .
Today, the Milwaukee voucher program enrolls nearly twenty thousand students in more than one hundred schools, yet this growing marketplace has yielded little innovation or excellence. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently described 10 percent of voucher schools as having "alarming deficiencies." These include Alex's Academics of Excellence, which was launched by a convicted rapist, and the Mandella School of Science and Math, whose director overreported its voucher enrollment and used the funds to purchase two Mercedes-Benzes. Veteran Journal Sentinel writer Alan Borsuk has opined, "[The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program] has preserved the status quo in terms of schooling options in the city more than it has offered a range of new, innovative, or distinctive schools."
Wisconsin headline writers have had a field day, with the Capital Times and Milwaukee Magazine featuring the likes of "The Failure of School Choice," and "Whoops, We Goofed: School Choice Doesn't Work Like Its Supporters Promised. Gulp. Now What?" . . .
While research suggests that some participating students benefit from private school vouchers, these results may largely reflect the ability of students in places like New York City or Washington, D.C., to find empty seats in established parochial schools. There is little evidence that voucher or choice programs have succeeded in fostering the emergence or expansion of high-quality options.
Similar concerns plague the charter movement nationally, even as the number of charter schools has surged above four thousand and charter enrollment has passed the one million mark. The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics has compared the performance of students in district and charter schools, reporting, "After adjusting for student characteristics, charter school mean scores in reading and mathematics were lower, on average, than those for public noncharter schools." . . .
Stig Leschly, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, has observed that only about two hundred of the thousands of existing charter schools "really close the achievement gap." . . .
Among the eight cities where charter schools enroll 20 percent or more of students are Detroit, Michigan; Youngstown, Ohio; and Washington, D.C. In 2007, Education Week reported that, despite a substantial charter presence, Detroit had the highest dropout rate among the nation's large school systems. A 2007 analysis found that just 57 percent of Youngstown's charter schools, and just 38 percent of its district schools, met Ohio's growth targets for student improvement in reading and math.
In a study of Washington, D.C., which has one of the nation's highest rates of charter school enrollment, researchers Margaret Sullivan, Dean Campbell, and Brian Kisida found no evidence of improvement in D.C. public schools even as they lost nearly a third of their students to charter school competition. They traced inaction to a district "hampered by political dynamics and burdensome regulations." . . .