Jack Norman Jan. 4, 2017 MJSentinel
Why do school choice advocates want to build quality schools at the expense of public education?
The discussion about choice, public and charter schools is plenty heated. Let’s not pollute it with fake news.
Case in point: William Flanders’ and Corey DeAngelis’ misleading Dec. 26 commentary promising nearly half-a-billion dollars in benefits from the creation of a single private K-8 school in Milwaukee (“School choice: Nearly $500 million in benefits,” Opinions).
I’ll get to that piece later. But, first, a reminder of what the debate about public “versus” choice schools is all about.
The problem for public school advocates isn’t that choice advocates want to build quality schools as alternatives to Milwaukee Public Schools. Kudos to them for that.
It’s that in order to achieve that goal, too many of them want to do it at the expense of public education.
Consider this analogy: It’s widely recognized there are serious problems with the Milwaukee Police Department. These include relations with the African-American community, dealing with mentally ill troublemakers, staff diversity — issues plaguing police departments nationwide.
But would it make sense to strip the department of resources and instead use them to create a hodge-podge of private security forces? Would we have public safety depend on private armed guards, competing with each other and with the department for business?
Imagine the chaos if neighborhoods used tax dollars to hire private firms that market protection packages. Rich neighborhoods would add their own money to buy higher-quality services. What recourse would residents have against profiteering by unscrupulous firms?
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Even the department’s harshest critics agree that public safety is best improved by reforming the public police force, retaining what it does well, while introducing new practices.
But when it comes to education, too many choice supporters are eager to abandon the public system and create a medley of private alternatives. Why do they keep playing education as a zero-sum game, where private-school winners must be balanced out by public-school losers?
Imagine, instead, a world in which the entire body of choice advocates joined in support of public education as well as private education. Rather than cheering the governor and Legislature as they systematically weaken public education, imagine they joined the fight against these policies.
Public school advocates years ago made necessary compromises. They accepted the continuing existence of the choice program. Charter schools? MPS is full of them. And the focus of the public school lobby is not on eliminating private school options but on ensuring they deliver quality education.
If public school advocates were once slaves to an incompetent bureaucracy and blind to systemic failures, that time is long past.
Alan Borsuk is a keen observer of education who has never held back his criticisms of MPS. But he complimented Superintendent Darienne Driver in a recent Journal Sentinel article, noting her “fresh, thoughtful and significant attempt to change the status quo.”
To return to the Flanders-DeAngelis op-ed: It alleges a wealth of economic benefits if St. Marcus Lutheran School purchased an MPS building. The authors claim their analysis “documents the staggering economic benefits of school choice.”
They cite a flawed University of Arkansas study to claim that students of top choice schools are slightly more likely to graduate and live a crime-free life. They attach numbers that add up, they allege, to nearly half-a-billion dollars in benefits over the next two decades.
Let’s be clear. Nobody doubts that high-quality schools — private or public — yield economic benefits for the community at large.
But the study the authors use is a cherry-picking piece of work. It looks at one school only, one that gives it the results it wants. It ignores critical factors in student success, such as parental involvement and motivation. It considers only its favored school’s benefits while ignoring any of the downsides that come from weakening MPS.
Public-school advocates are not out to kill private education. Can’t these private school advocates stop trying to kill public education?
Jack Norman is a retired journalist and policy analyst who lives in Milwaukee.