Accountability must accompany growth

I have been writing about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – known colloquially as the voucher program – for almost as long as I have been writing on the internet.  In fact, I went back through the archives at my old blog in preparation for this post, and was amazed at just exactly how long there has been debate and foot-dragging on the issue of “accountability” when it comes to taxpayer dollars and private schools.  A decade ago, when I started, there was virtually no accountability at all for voucher schools, which could keep wide swaths of data out of the public eye, from test scores to proceedings of governance boards.  That slowly changed.

We finally reached, a couple of years ago, a place where I though there was almost parity, in terms of accountability, between public schools and voucher schools in Milwaukee.  In addition to a longitudinal study that would cover many aspects of the program, in 2010 voucher schools were for the first time ever required to administer and report the results of the WKCE, the state’s standardized test.  Those results, when reported, were not good for the voucher schools.

(Disclaimer:  I do not now feel, nor have I ever felt, that a standardized test provides the best accounting of how a particular student, teacher, school or district is performing.  The WKCE is, however, the tool used to hold public schools accountable in this state, and as such, it provides a fair comparison to voucher schools.)

At about the same time as those results were released, the budget put forward by Gov. Scott Walker was set to walk back the testing requirement, as well as eliminate the requirement that voucher-school teachers be licensed by the state.  Neither of those changes made it through the process, so that’s something.

But Walker made another promise that would bring us even closer to parity:  a common “report card” for every single school that is funded in whole or in part by tax dollars.  This was a pledge repeated as recently as Walker’s 2012 State of the State address.  “Every school that receives public funds–be it a traditional public school, a charter school or a choice school–will be rated by a fair, objective and transparent system,” he said.

But then last week the Republicans in the legislature unveiled the bill (pdf) that was supposed to contain such a reporting system–the system that was promised and negotiated.  But that system was missing.  Indeed, it sounds like the requirement was stripped from the bill just before it was introduced, and there was quite a bit of email finger-pointing in the process.

You can call it bait-and-switch, you can call it lying, you can call it bowing to the school choice lobby – but whatever you want to call it, dropping this layer of transparency is a bad idea. We learn this morning via the Public Policy Forum, through its annual report (pdf) on the voucher program, that the state saw a 12 percent increase in the number of students using vouchers, and that the voucher schools would be the state’s third-largest district if treated as such.  Yet voucher schools will get a pass on the kind of scrutiny that public schools routinely face.  (There is more to say on the PPF’s report, but not today, on this subject.)

As my friend and fellow contributor to this blog Tom Beebe points out regularly, public schools in Wisconsin have been on the decline:  Chronic underfunding for the last two decades has had devastating effects on what public school students learn and how.  We’ve been setting our schools up for failure.

At the same time, we’ve been propping up voucher schools, allowing them for much of the programs 20-year history to play by different rules.  The current bill returns to that double standard, even though it leaves out the state-wide “report card” – the bill features a new teacher evaluation system that will not apply to teachers in voucher schools.

The statement from Walker’s speech above is a common-sense one, that any school that receives taxpayer money ought to be equally accountable to the taxpayers.  But voucher schools have almost always gotten the breaks that public schools don’t, and this new bill perpetuates their favorable treatment.  As the program grows ever larger, it needs ever more accountability.  The legislature must amend this bill now to make a new state-wide report card – and the teacher evaluation system, while we’re at it – applicable to voucher schools too.

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