Latest school tests re-ignites public/voucher debate

The latest results from a new system of standardized tests for Wisconsin students has set off yet another round in the seemingly endless debate about education in Milwaukee.

Which is best? Public schools or voucher schools?

If you’ve been paying attention to the debate that has surrounded this issue for the past 30 years or so, you probably have your own opinion.

But a new round of standardized tests that found Milwaukee public school students performed better than their counterparts in voucher schools was immediately touted by MPS officials who understand much of the money that goes to school choice in Milwaukee comes from the same pot of tax payer money as public schools.

More and more, it’s getting harder to keep what is essentially two separate education systems functioning at the same time without knowing exactly what the benefit will be in the future.

The debate over school choice – a program that allows students to attend private schools at taxpayer cost – comes out of  a general dissatisfaction with the state of public education by many African-American parents. That movement evolved to point where it accumulated various political enemies, including the state teachers’ union and the usual assortment of Democrats and Republicans fighting across partisan lines.

Somehow, the need to improve the education of failing black children got lost in the mix. But the new state tests were supposed to address that.

Being able to compare tests scores has always been a sore point for some MPS officials because many voucher schools have not been required to take the same kind of standardized tests as other students in the state.

Since new test cut scores designed to raise standards in reading and math was adopted last year, many school systems have to adjust to having less students rated “proficient” or “advanced” than in recent years.

In a statement Tuesday, MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton noted that MPS students continued to outperform their counterparts who used publicly funded vouchers. According to the results, MPS students scored 3.4 higher than voucher students in reading and 6.5 points higher in math.

But nobody could deny the overall results of the standardized testing revealed daunting problems still remain with under-performing students in Milwaukee Public Schools.

In his remarks, Thornton praised the results but noted there was more to do.

“We have seen some promising increases in achievement among students who have  historically underperformed,” Thornton said. “We are working hard to make sure that the significant reforms we have put in place … will yield stronger results in the coming years.”

School choice supporters will no doubt question the veracity of these latest round of new standardized tests. Some spokespersons for various voucher schools have already criticized the way the testing was done for some private schools included in the results.

School choice remains a political and racial football because of its origins as a movement by African-American parents to give their children the same quality of education that some white families get. Due to the nature of using tax money to duplicate what public education is supposed to do, the fight over school choice has split across partisan lines that often cloud the essential issues.

In his latest budget proposal, Gov. Scott Walker wants to freeze spending on public education in Wisconsin even while proposing the expansion of voucher schools in other parts of the state. Some educators in Milwaukee fear that means the pot of money for public education will continue to get reduced.

For some educators, given the results of latest test scores, it seems like this is the wrong time to offer less help instead of more.

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