I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Milwaukee's Best?

Those of you stopping by from outside the Garden State may not be aware that we have had a big battle brewing over school vouchers, in the form of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. There's talk that a scaled-down version of OSA is going to try to get through the legislature again, even though it's missing a key previous supporter, Senator Ray Lesniak (whose pet school, St. Pat's in Elizabeth, is shutting down this year - tells you something, doesn't it?).

It's worth noting that OSA is going to disproportionately affect one community in New Jersey: Lakewood. There are over 17,000 private school students in Lakewood, most attending yeshivas; but I doubt very much the pro-voucher forces will be discussing this fact.

No, I'm guessing we'll be hearing much more about this:
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is a success story in virtually every measurable way.
     A new study released on the nation’s oldest private school voucher program shows that participants are more likely to graduate and go on to college, improve in reading and science, and represent a more diverse student population than their counterparts at traditional Milwaukee public schools.
     “Although we have examined virtually every possible way that school choice could systematically affect people, schools, and neighborhoods in Milwaukee, we have found no evidence of any harmful effects of choice,” wrote Patrick Wolf, professor at the University of Arkansas and lead author of the study.
     The five-year evaluation (2006-11) of the Milwaukee voucher program was conducted by Wolf, along with University of Wisconsin professor John Witte and Furman University professor David Fleming, as part of theUniversity of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project.
     The research shows that the growing number of students in the voucher program and area charter schools not only “produced better student outcomes than those experienced by similar students in (Milwaukee Public Schools),” competition from those schools raised achievement in local public schools.
     In dollars and cents, Milwaukee’s voucher program saved the state $52 million last fiscal year, because the $6,500 vouchers cost far less than the per-pupil state funding sent to the city’s public schools.
I want to get this on the record right now because I'm starting to understand how these people think. I am certain the NJ voucher cheerleaders are going to go on about how Milwaukee is a shining example of voucher success.

Don't believe them. Let's start with the actual evaluation itself:
When similar MPCP and MPS students are matched and tracked over four years, the achievement growth of MPCP students compared to MPS students is higher in reading but similar in math. The MPCP achievement advantage in reading is only conclusive in 2010-11, the year a high-stakes testing policy was added to the MPCP (Report #29).
When a snapshot of all MPCP students who took the state accountability test is compared to a snapshot of the performance of MPS students with similar income disadvantages, the MPCP students are performing at higher levels in the upper grades in reading and science but at lower levels in math at all grade levels examined and in reading and science in 4th grade (Report #32).
Hardly a ringing endorsement. But let's go further:
To the evaluators of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, vouchers are like a vaccine. Once students are "exposed" to the voucher program - even if they subsequently leave - that "exposure" somehow accounts for any good things that happen later on. 
And leave they did - a whopping 75% of them. 
Here are the details: The evaluators began by following 801 ninth-grade voucher recipients. By 12th grade, only about 200 of these students were still using vouchers to attend private school. Three of every four students had left the program. 
Given this attrition, the researchers had to estimate graduation rates (as well as college attendance rates and persistence in college) by comparing Milwaukee Public Schools students to students who had been "exposed" to the voucher program - even though most of those students appear to have actually graduated from an MPS school. 
Yet the summary report from the evaluators has no mention of the 75% attrition rate. What readers were told was, "Enrolling in (read as "being exposed to") a private high school through MPCP increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college and persisting in college by 4-7 percentage points." 
That sounds positive, and voucher advocates have trumpeted this statement. But a more defensible statement is that there are no findings of benefits that are statistically distinguishable from zero. 
Here's why: After controlling both for students' prior measured achievement and for differences in the level of parents' formal education, to ensure that comparable students were being compared, none of the benefits showcased by the evaluators are statistically significant using conventional significance criteria. [emphasis mine]
It's also worth noting that any gains in student achievement in the voucher schools is confounded by the fact that the schools got the inevitable bump that comes from subsequent administrations of standardized tests; in other words, the schools get "used to" the tests and do better. This is not a real indicator of student achievement.

As to the claim that the Milwaukee vouchers saved taxpayers money:
Finally, there is no reference to any literature that has raised issues about the earlier studies. For example, the report claiming that the MPCP saves taxpayers’ money was reviewed by this author two years ago.14 The existence of any savings depends heavily on two assumptions: how many students would have attended public school if the voucher option was not available, and how much is saved as each student transfers out of the public school system. Any savings that might arise are very sensitive to the first assumption about take-up. Plus, the savings are assumed as if the voucher students would have cost the same as other students; this assumption is not tested and is most likely not valid. Students who leave for voucher schools are likely to cost less to educate than the students who remain. Neither of these issues is addressed in this report. [emphasis mine]
In other words: you can't judge the savings until you look at how much it would cost to educate the different students. Why reformy types continue to ignore this critical part of the debate is beyond me.

Here's the conclusion of NEPC's analysis:
Over the past two decades, the injustices done to MPS students have multiplied. The student body has become more desperately poor and the number of students with costly special educational needs has increased. Art, music and physical education have been drastically cut, and the teacher mentoring program scaled back. 
Over that same period, the Milwaukee voucher program has not delivered. As this evaluation confirms, students who receive vouchers probably don't do any worse or any better when they move to private schools. 
But evidence doesn't seem to matter. The "choice" system has become the broken status quo - choice as an end in itself - vigilantly guarded and professionally promoted by a well-funded, well-compensated and well-placed phalanx of advocates while the real needs of Milwaukee's schoolchildren remain largely unaddressed. [emphasis mine]
 Gosh, that's sounds so familiar...

New Jersey and other states confronting vouchers, you need to ask yourself one thing:

Twenty years from now, do you want to look like Milwaukee?


Anonymous said...


You're amazing! How do you write so much great stuff so quickly?

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Plus, the savings are assumed as if the voucher students would have cost the same as other students; this assumption is not tested and is most likely not valid. Students who leave for voucher schools are likely to cost less to educate than the students who remain. Neither of these issues is addressed in this report. [emphasis mine]

Actually, Duke, if you look at mature voucher programs (e.g.: Florida) you see the not astonishing fact that the children whose parents decide to try something else are the ones NOT getting straight As and captaining the football team. They are the ones struggling to pass and the ones getting in troubling. In some areas the voucher quota is not even met.

You further ignoring the point that there is no financia,l equivanet to the OSA, which is drawn from corporate tax deductible scholarships and not state monies. Do you really think all that money would otherwise just meekly find its way into the state treasury? Or perhaps would those same corporations find some other tax credit that doesn't do anything to alleviate the cost of education to taxpayers, but merely lower state tax revenue?

Anonymous said...

Duke, You're amazing! How do you write so much great stuff so quickly?

lol...where does he find the time? You do know what he does for a living, right?

Duke said...

So, if you give a corporation a tax credit for OSA, they won't work as hard to find others?


By the way, I found the time to do these posts because I no longer troll around to other sites, posting comments every few hours. That takes up way more time than writing my own blog...

Anonymous said...

No, Duke....here's how it works. Corporation B has a $160,000 tax obligation to the State of NJ. They decide to sponsor 20 OSA scholarships (let's say an average of @8k per).

The 20 kids leave a failing, probably overcrowded, inner city school that is spending $25,000 per child ($500,000 for the 20 kids). The failing school keeps the funding difference of $17,000 per "ghost" child ($340,000). Their cost-per-child resources rise, their space concerns are alleviated, they can start new programs, retain and hire better teachers, etc.

The 20 familes (mandated to be at the lower end of the poverty scale) get the civil right to choose their child's schooling, perhaps moving from a government-run school where they were failing, causing trouble, etc.

Now...no OSA. That corporation figures out some other way to lessen its tax bill to NJ -- a way that probably will not result in new programs, less overcrowding, higher paid teachers, etc. That will not lower the tax burden on NJ taxpayers while raising the per child funding for inner city failing schools.

Maybe they put in solar panels. Whatever.

Got it? The OSA is a win-win-win-win. It's major problem is it has been politically footballed down to a tiny fraction of what it should have been.

Duke said...

Why wouldn't corporations both put in solar panels AND do OSA if both lowered their tax bill?

And when did we decide corporations are such good judges of where to send education funds?

As I have pointed out over and over again, your theory of cost-savings to districts only works if you can account for the cost of educating each individual child. If the public school retains the most expensive children to educate, that very well may not help the school's bottom line.

No one can claim OSA saves districts money until a cost/benefit analysis is done at this level. Has B4K or E3 done so? I'd like to see it.

Further: in the Kean bill, as I read it, there is no limit to the number of scholarships that can go to students already enrolled in private schools. That will not save districts a dime, as SFRA aid is based on actual enrollment, not potential enrollment.

Do you support a version of OSA that would ONLY have $ go to students who were previously enrolled in the public district? Or do you support a version that would guarantee state funds to the public district for every student who takes an OSA scholarship?

Because I don't see any way that becomes "revenue neutral" for the state any more - one of the big claims of OSA supporters, including ACTING Commissioner Cerf.

Anonymous said...

Stop trying to mislead people.

OSA is NOT funded by corporate contributions. It is funded out of our tax dollars, plain and simple.

If a child who is attending a public school gets a voucher, the money will come out of that child's school district budget.

If a child who is already attending a private school gets a voucher (as will be the case for the vast majority of these), the money will come out of our state budget and will need to be replaced with additional taxes on all of us or with cuts to other programs.

Corporations will only take advantage of the "tax credits" as a way to gain favor with Christie by supporting his pet project. They stand to gain absolutely nothing else in this program. Every dollar they put in is reimbursed by the State. This is not philanthropy on their part. It's politics.

The tax scheme used in this bill is just a form of political money laundering, designed to fool people and to circumvent the separation of church and state in the constitution.

Shame on your voucher pushers for your consistent lies and misinformation. I guess the idea can't stand on its own so you have to deceive people to try and sneak it by them. And they still hate it!

New Jersey residents are smarter than you give them credit for.