A few months ago, back before we were plunged into the darkest timeline, I responded to some proposed changes in Wisconsin state law that would weaken, if not fully bankrupt, the Milwaukee Public Schools. The changes were proposed by my current archnemeses at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL). You can read my columns from August and September to see what the original face-off was all about.
Last week, sandwiched in between evidence that The Sky Is Falling, like President-elect Trump filling out his “common man” cabinet with billionaires, the internet served up a notification that WILL had responded to my complaints.
The proposed changes in state law suggested by WILL mostly involved an expansion of Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s voucher programs, which I do not support. They also recommended immediate and full implementation of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, which would have cut MPS’s portfolio of schools and student enrollment by a third or more in a single year – a death blow for the city’s public schools. This latter recommendation is especially ironic, given the role that WILL seems to have played in disrupting the first attempt at the OSPP.
Unsurprisingly, WILL didn’t like my detailed critiques. No, wait, that’s not right. Let me rephrase that: WILL didn’t like my tone.
Look, when I wrote to suggest that WILL’s ideas were bad for MPS and the city, I did so with the backing of both lived experience and quantitative data. I pointed out their abuse of statistics (for example, implying that MPS per-pupil spending – average for a district its size, by their own numbers – was irresponsibly high) and the problems with comparing Milwaukee to New Orleans. I asked why their reforms would be applied only to MPS and not to private schools that receive the bulk of their budgets through taxpayer-funded vouchers. I wrote, “I’m not suggesting the status quo is acceptable or that MPS has room now to be complacent.” Indeed, I even suggested different solutions, supported by data, that might help MPS, asking that WILL leverage its considerable influence with the current Wisconsin legislative leadership to get those suggestions going.
Here, then, is their full discussion of my responses: I “was so threatened by these reforms,” they say, that I “devoted two overwrought columns to warn the public that those who suggest reform have a secret agenda to proverbially ‘carpet-bomb’ the Milwaukee Public School system into obliteration. Sadly the columnist’s rhetoric is a sad reflection of today’s politics where people resort to hyperbole and name-calling when they disagree with a point of view.”
That’s it. End of response. Oh, they write more – if you click through, you’ll see they do a full rehash of their original proposals. But there’s no substantive debate on the issues I raised. I started reading their post wondering if I might need to lay down a new gauntlet; as it turns out, my old gauntlet is still down, untouched.
On the one hand, I am flattered WILL finds my responses significant enough to merit a reply at all. On the other, though, I’m quite offended that all they can muster is tone-policing. For the record, yes, I did perhaps use an “overwrought” “hyperbole” in making an analogy to carpet-bombing. But I do not believe I engaged in any name-calling. In fact, I repeatedly said they were right in many ways, in particular recognizing that achievement issues are not limited to MPS (even if their solutions are) and represent a “Milwaukee problem” that is broader and more complex than their blame-MPS mentality ultimately allows.
Further, I want to be absolutely clear about something. I do not believe, have never believed, have never suggested and do not endorse the idea that the current reality in Milwaukee education is fine. If anyone in this exchange is crossing the line into overwrought territory, it is WILL in their implication that I am “dedicated in protecting the status quo” when I have a two-decade history in the classroom and in writing that says otherwise.
WILL intimates that I found “cause for celebration” in the news that MPS had moved out of the lowest performance category in the most recent state rankings. They apparently didn’t see me assert there was still work to be done. They intimate that I believe in “doing nothing.” Again, they didn’t do the research.
Funny, then, that WILL claims to be so diligent in its work. “We were careful in our analysis,” they say, “evaluating the potential success of each proposal, while at the same time identifying potential pitfalls and barriers to success.” In addition to not being careful before replying to me, my initial responses showed clearly they were not that careful in vetting their proposals. They still haven’t been careful.
They do not explain why their first idea, the “Education Savings Account,” is different from the state-wide voucher program for poor families that already exists – unless they plan to make it another giveaway to the state’s wealthy families, maybe? WILL cites no experiments in other states showing ESAs move the needle on student achievement, because there are none; the nation’s oldest program, in Nevada, was ruled unconstitutional in September.
In their reply to me, WILL suggested I was wrong to suspect their motives were impure, that their plans were motivated solely by anti-MPS bias. But what do you call it when they demand any ESA users be barred from accessing MPS, even its best-in-the-city schools, while apparently not barred from accessing a low-performing voucher schools? We’re going to have this awesome thing, they say, but we’ll block MPS from accessing it; that surely sounds like anti-MPS bias to me!
They do not explain why their second idea, the “enhanced voucher,” would promote student achievement where the current, un-enhanced voucher has failed to do so. WILL suggests this voucher would be good at schools in any sector – private voucher, public charter or MPS – but do not explain why using a middleman-style voucher approach is better than simply having the state provide the “limited time” boost in funding to low-performing schools this enhanced voucher would give. Is it, again, just a bias against any aid flowing directly to the schools who need it most?
They do not explain why their third idea, immediate full takeovers of more than 40 MPS schools (disclosure: mine included), would not be destructive to this city and its public schools. They do not try to justify their assertion that a “union-captured MPS school board” is standing between students and miraculous success, citing exactly zero proposed reforms shot down by the board. They do not explain why circumvention of the democratically elected school board is necessary, why “choice” is good for parents picking a school but not so much for a community electing its school board. They do not attempt to rationalize away the lack of enthusiasm to take over MPS schools, when MPS was eligible for the OSPP, from most local voucher and charter operators.
And importantly, they do not even come close to explaining how Milwaukee is supposed to see New Orleans-style takeover success without some key factors that made New Orleans-style success possible in New Orleans in the first place: considerable time and considerably increased spending.
Perhaps they are just assuming their readers will not click through the links to see my critiques. WILL perhaps assumes readers of the “WILL Ed Blog” are not interested in confronting facts that challenge their chosen narrative, facts that pierce the carefully blown bubble reality in which MPS does no right and voucher schools do no wrong. What’s that? Am I perhaps turning WILL’s epistemic closure talking point back around on them? Maybe!
Regardless, WILL shows an utter lack of engagement with actual ideas and failure to grapple with the complexities and realities of life in Milwaukee. They would much rather promote the same old anti-MPS solutions – vouchers and takeovers – that hurt MPS’s bottom-line ability to educate this city’s most challenging students. These have failed to significantly improve overall outcomes in Milwaukee, a critique WILL won’t acknowledge.
They don’t have to, of course; we all saw the election-night news about our fall into that darkest timeline. Wisconsin’s pro-privatizing legislators and, inevitably, a new pro-privatizing federal Department of Education will continue to ignore the voices of actual educators in pursuit of their anti-public school goals.