Sliding to the wrong end of the school voucher scale

Back in March, Checker, Mike, Amber and I wrote a paper called When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What's the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs? We proposed a sliding-scale mechanism: the more money a private school receives from voucher-bearing students, the more accountable it should be to the public.

We suspected this model would work well for start-up programs, but not as well for existing ones.?? And this week, Wisconsin showed us why. The state legislature's Joint Finance Committee (discussing the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program as part of budget talks) will force all schools to the far end of the scale if its recommendations pass (see detailed language here, specifically in paper 642). Alan Borsuk reported in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, among other things, this agreement would require participating private schools to "give standardized tests and report the results, employ teachers who have at least bachelor's degrees and meet the same minimum hours of instruction as public schools."

There are two issues here: first, requiring all schools to follow the same rules and, second, the content of those rules. Let's look at the issue of the schools themselves first. We devised the sliding scale on the premise that a school which accepted only a handful of voucher-bearing students should not be subject to oppressive regulation. It's therefore easy to take offense at Wisconsin's approach on first glance. But maybe it's not so outrageous. The School Choice Demonstration Project's Year 2 evaluation showed that in the 2007-08 school year, 63% of participating private schools had populations composed of 80% (or more!) voucher-bearing students. While it might be a bit extreme to force all participating private schools to the far end of the sliding scale, in Milwaukee's case it looks like a legitimate political compromise to keep the program alive.

The content of the new rules is a bit harder to swallow. I'll set aside the issues of "inputs", like teacher qualification and instruction time (read our paper if you'd like to learn more), and focus on testing plans.?? Our sliding scale was mindful of the range of quality among state tests; but, we reasoned, if a school drew significant income from public funds, it should be required to administer the same test as its public and charter school peers. In Wisconsin, if this budget passes, all participating private schools will have to administer the shoddy Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (see more about its quality here and here) to voucher-bearing students. Previously, schools were allowed to choose which nationally normed test to administer. Once again, these rules move all of the program's schools to the far end of the accountability scale, regardless of how much voucher income they receive. School choice advocates in Wisconsin were also wary of subjecting schools to the WKCE, but the compromise is just plain bizarre:

Among the changes [Howard] Fuller sought was flexibility in how the testing requirement would be imposed on voucher schools. He and many private school leaders were critical of the test used statewide, known as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam. State officials are already working on overhauling that test. The agreement provides that if they don't succeed in time for the 2011-'12 school year, voucher schools will be allowed to give a different test to fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders, beginning in 2010-'11.

In theory, participating private schools may administer the WKCE in 2010 only and return to the old rules the following year. But even that change seems like a remote possibility, as Wisconsin could very easily rubber stamp a marginally-improved WKCE in a year's time. So participating private schools could be stuck administering a crummy test to voucher-bearing students, or another political battle will ensue if schools return to administering the tests of their choosing. Point, voucher opponents.

What exactly were voucher opponents in Wisconsin threatening such that this testing solution became a "compromise"? Most likely death to (or a severe drawdown of) the MPCP, proportion of voucher-bearing students in a school be damned. Participating private schools will now lose autonomy, but 20,000 kids will continue to attend schools of their choosing. It is precisely this political wrangling that inhibits innovation in existing voucher programs.?? These compromises were clearly the best way to save the program, but they bring the MPCP no closer to operating under a clear, effective accountability regime.

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