Back when I used to blog about politics, I was a constant critic of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact operation. Or, as I called it, Politi”Fact,” with the emphasis on the sarcasm quotes.
Why? Because PolitiFact Wisconsin, as the local franchise is known, tries to set itself up as a neutral arbiter, and so it usually plays the “both sides do it” card. It can’t be too critical of one side, even if that one side plays far more fast and loose with the facts than the other side does. (Also: there are only two sides, so the truth must lie in the middle!)
This kind of faux-neutrality is the hallmark not of fact-checkers but of a distant, entitled media, hoping to maintain an “above it all” reputation and the good graces of the folks who generously douse the state’s largest media operation with significant political ad buys every couple of years.
In Monday’s paper, the PolitiFact crew examines some claims made about school vouchers by groups both favoring the program’s expansion (including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) and opposing it, claiming it is “sorting out the truth” about voucher schools. It should be no surprise that I oppose expansion, though I am not personally involved in the anti-voucher groups cited in this story.
That said, then, my problem lies less in what they did write than in what they left out.
They covered three things: comparisons of student achievement, issues related to special education, and background checks for employees. Among those, the biggest omission is their discussion of voucher-program attrition across the board. While they note that the School Choice Demonstration Project admitted to having trouble with high-schoolers leaving the program during the study (a full 75% of all the students who entered the voucher program as ninth-graders in all of Milwaukee left the program before graduation, leading to some real problems with the data), I’ve noted on this site before the problems with students who enter and leave the program at all grade levels. Students who move from voucher schools to MPS — amuch more likely direction for switching than the inverse — are more likely to have lower achievement scores than students who never left MPS in the first place. As I noted at the time, experts blame the chaotic marketplace that Milwaukee’s voucher program has spawned for this achievement deficiency.
Another omission from the PolitiFact story is the financial consequences of the voucher program on the public schools they supplant. As you have seen in Milwaukee over the last 20-plus years, pulling tens of thousands of students — and their attendant funding — out of the public schools has a devastating effect. And there is what’s known as the voucher funding flaw, a kink in the math of the way the program is paid for that punishes Milwaukee taxpayers in several different ways.
This is not a “both sides are right and both sides are wrong” issue; the financial effects are real and painful and need to be accounted for if there is going to be further program expansion.
But perhaps the biggest omission in the PolitiFact collection of grievances against voucher expansion is the notion of oversight and accountability. The voucher program with its approximately 25,000 students, if it were its own school district, would be the state’s third largest, behind Milwaukee and Madison. The voucher program spends well over $150 million a year of your taxpayer dollars. And yet despite its size and cost, there is next to no accountability to taxpayers or to the state.
There is no elected school board that oversees the voucher program; there is no central administration that coordinates instruction or ensures that each school actually offers the curriculum it promises or pressures schools to boost student achievement. There is no central repository of data about how well individual schools perform, no “report card” for any of the voucher schools that can be compared to the public schools’ data reporting. Voucher schools do not have to comply with many state and federal requirements, up to and including open meetings laws for their governing bodies, creating a level of opacity that no taxpayer-funded enterprise should be allowed to maintain.
For some, this is the great appeal of the voucher system — a set of schools free from the domineering regulation of the state, free to succeed or fail at the whim of the market, like New Coke or Daiwoo.
But the “market theory” of governance, the notion that these schools do not need oversight because parents can exercise “choice” and shut these schools down, has consistently failed over the years to shutter the worst-performing schools. Even the paltry requirement that schools must acquire some form of accreditation once has failed to stop repeat offender schools from enrolling children and taking taxpayer funds. The state Department of Public Instruction, which has the greatest level of oversight of these schools, is largely powerless to do anything about schools that underperform or otherwise fail to teach children unless those schools commit a paperwork violation. Any and every attempt over the last decade to empower DPI to offer more rigorous oversight of voucher schools, or to impose greater accountability or reporting requirements upon them, has failed in the state legislature.
When schools in Milwaukee or Racine (or Beloit or Waukesha or any of the other places the Wisconsin Republicans want to expand vouchers into) fail to live up to expectations, there are intense federal and state guidelines to follow for how to push for improvement, and the elected school boards and central administration must be responsive to parent and taxpayer concerns. What expansion means is a massive increase in the number of unregulated and unaccountable schools that ultimately answer to no one.
That PolitiFact doesn’t bother to note these objections, objections that simply cannot be answered with a “truth” that lies somewhere in the middle, is both disappointing and not entirely unexpected.