Following is an op-ed I wrote about misinformation being spread by voucher advocates.
Judge Milwaukee educational outcomes on the facts
By Larry Miller
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel June 25, 2011
School voucher advocates have had two recent op-eds in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The story behind school choice study” by John Witte and Patrick Wolf on May 28 and “Special needs students benefit from many choices” by Susan Mitchell on June 19. Both are at best misinformed and at worst deceptive. The facts should matter.
State law says voucher schools must accept special education students. Then why are so few special education students (the number hovers near 1%) attending voucher schools? I put this question to a voucher school principal, who said her school has no special education services or students.
I asked her how that was possible. She stated that she simply tells parents of special education students that she cannot provide the services that their children need. Parents then choose another school, she said – most likely in Milwaukee Public Schools.
MPS does receive more money per student than voucher schools receive. But Mitchell claims MPS receives $15,000 per student while voucher students receive $6,442. She somehow arrived at these numbers without doing her homework. One needs to subtract from the total the amount transferred to voucher schools for a variety of programs.
For example, Mitchell does not subtract the more than $12 million of Title I categorical funds available for 2010-2011 for nonpublic schools from the MPS total for student allocation and add it to the voucher per student allocation. These funds are managed through MPS and mandated to be distributed in total to voucher schools. This is also true with the $1,652,063 that MPS manages for transportation that goes to non-MPS students.
The same happens with recreation services, federal and state nutrition funding, after-school community learning center programs, special education services for voucher students provided by MPS staff and much more. Mitchell attributes these millions of dollars to the MPS per student amount, when in fact they should be added to the voucher per student amount.
Witte and Wolfe claim that MPS has “strong incentives to classify students as requiring exceptional education.” In fact, MPS loses $42 million yearly because special education is an underfunded mandate. That $42 million must be made up from MPS general funds by cutting classroom teachers, the arts, music, gym, libraries – all fundamental for a good education system. Not one penny of special education money can be spent outside of special education services. So where’s the “strong incentive”?
Let’s turn to graduation rates. Voucher supporters claim that 94% of voucher students attained graduation in four years, based on students who stayed with the voucher program for all four years. That, in fact, is just a subset of students followed in the Witte/Wolf study, known as the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project.
The group counted by Witte and Wolf amounts to only 318 of the 801 students who were actually followed (or roughly 39% of the overall sample). Another 322 of the students who began in the voucher program subsequently left the program, and researchers were not able to locate 161 others. The overall graduation figure for students that the project could find was 76.6% for the voucher program, compared with 69.4% for MPS.
The use of data in both those op-eds is an affront to anyone who wants to evaluate facts. The state Department of Public Instruction reports that voucher schools are serving less than 1% of students with learning disabilities. But Witte and Wolfe claim that the number is 9%, a figure that Mitchell then reaffirms in her op-ed.
How did Witte and Wolfe arrive at this number? “We surveyed parents” and “nine percent of choice parents said their child has a learning disability.” Concluding that a student is eligible for special education services is done through a meticulous evaluation involving parents, psychologists, social workers, special education professionals and teachers. It is not determined by answering a “yes or no” question during a phone survey.
Let’s judge the outcomes for Milwaukee’s students on credible research and facts. We owe it to them.
Larry Miller is a member of the Milwaukee School Board.