Our Own “Cuba Policy” – Wisconsin’s Parental Choice Programs

In “Celebration” of National School (Poor) Choice Week
Scott Farnsworth, Editor- In his State of the Union speech this Tuesday, President Obama repeated his rational for seeking a “normalization” of relations with Cuba: “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”  Since Governor Walker claims that he is out to get things done more quickly than Washington, one would hope that he would take note of the fact that the Milwaukee Parental Choice program enters its twenty-fifth year of failure this year and take a different tack.  Unfortunately, and predictably – given the significant and repeated campaign contributions made to his and other Republican legislators’ campaigns by pro-school choice organizations – what we are going to see are efforts to further expand this program.  

Truly – it baffles the mind – not that parents should seek a better education for their children, and not that I have any problem believing in the potential of alternative approaches to education reaching students who struggled in a traditional setting (I spent over three decades teaching at Reuther). It baffles me, however, how anyone can support a program that so clearly harms the public education system in their community in favor of a system that has been fraught with scandal after scandal, and which, by every objective measure, is even less effective in educating the students in its care. Again, not that I am any fan of the “objective” measures of standardized tests – but if that is the standard by which the proponents of school choice are going to assign “failure” to public schools, then they need to accept that measure of the private voucher schools they endorse.  That standard has shown repeatedly – both in Wisconsin and, more broadly, across the nation – that those “choice” schools are greater failures than the public systems they criticize.  Such were the conclusions drawn from various analyses of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and, most significantly, from the National Educational Longitudinal Study – at least, once socioeconomic factors are taken into account.

There’s the rub – the reality that socioeconomic background is a key component to student academic success – and why I find myself annually infuriated by school choice proponents holding their “week” in immediate proximity to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  It would be unfair for me to say that those who originally forwarded the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were not trying to address the needs of inner-city students in struggling schools – but to say that this and similar programs are supported across the nation for the same purpose is a myth, a political expediency – quite simply, a lie.  For proof, I would offer exactly the evidence already cited – that when it comes to poor, disadvantaged and disabled students, the results of these programs are less effective than the public programs they seek to replace.  Additionally, the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found “that Black and Latino charter students at all levels and charter students in high school perform worse in math and reading than their peers in traditional public schools.” (Berliner, David C. and Glass, Gene V., 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, Teachers College Press, New York, 2014)

The more sinister and unethical aspect of these programs, however, lie in those that are successful – and how they achieve that success.  These are not the scandals of schools that fail financially and close their doors (often with “program administrators” who earn higher salaries than many district superintendents!); these are the scandals of those programs that assure their success by excluding the very students that the proponents of this movement say they are designed to help – the poor, the disadvantaged and the disabled.  One of the most egregious examples is the BASIS Schools chain, “founded by an economics professor from the University of Arizona” – recognized by U.S News & World Report as one of the ten top high schools in the nation.  Even with a prospective student entry requirement that includes “a long research paper, an original short story, or an essay on some historical figure they admire,” and parents asked how many hours they intended to volunteer each week to the school, the “subsequent ‘flunking’ out of all but the most able” led to a school with an enrollment of over 500 in grades 6-12 having a graduating class of under two dozen students. For any public school, that rate would have it labeled as “failing,” not placed on a “top ten” list.  Other examples include parents who easily enrolled their mainstream students into programs that will not accept their special needs children. ibid.

This new segregation of America is the principal – and principled – criticism of the school choice movement.  I cannot imagine that Dr. King would be supportive of it in its current form.  As he said of education: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from fiction.  The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” Under the bright light of true education, the false promises and motives of the school choice movement wither.  As public school educators, we need to spread that truth.  In the last words of Goethe: “Light! More light!”