Local radio personality John Peterson wrote a blog post yesterday called The Voucher Wedge. In it, he talked about his displeasure with the voucher program that allows students to leave the Milwaukee Public Schools and enroll in various types of private schools. He has two specific complaints about giving families vouchers to use at non-public schools:
First, the choice program is sending taxpayer dollars into private schools that are not accountable to people of this state. I had heard Republicans were the party of accountability. Not only is there is no standardized test to compare private and public schools ability educate children, but choice supporters have blocked an honest evaluation to support their contention that private schools are better.
Second, public schools could not budget accurately for the next year without knowing enrollment numbers. Suggesting that there be no cap demonstrates a lack of business savvy.
As a supporter of vouchers, I'd like to respond to John's complaints. Now, I'm definitely not an "educational expert". I'm a guy with a blog that likes to ask questions and raise concerns. I'm probably overlooking some subtleties of the educational system. I'm not an expert on the Milwaukee Choice Program or on the private schools that are currently accepting vouchers. These are simply my reactions to John's assertions.
I must admit that I'm a bit surprised by his first complaint. He claims that private schools are not accountable to "people of this state". Well, as I see it, the private schools are accountable to one very important group of people: the parents who are sending their children to these schools. The vouchers, that the parents receive, are usable at many different schools. If the parents see that their children are doing worse in a voucher school than they were in a public school, it's a simple matter to move the children to a new voucher school or back into the MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools).
That's why I think this complaint is a bit of a red herring. WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union) would love to keep Milwaukee's children in their schools. To that end, WEAC moans about a lack of oversight and a lack of standardized testing. What they really mean, is that WEAC is not able to oversee the schools or determine if Milwaukee's children are measuring up to WEAC's standards. (Now it's true that John only mentioned state oversight of the private schools. But really, which group has the most influence over Wisconsin's educational policy? WEAC does. Therefore, it seems to me, that any state oversight of eduction really boils down to WEAC oversight of education.)
I don't think a teacher's union should be the final arbiters of whether teachers are doing a good job. I don't think teachers should be determining which school system does the best job of teaching children. I think doing so creates an inherent conflict of interest for the teachers. I believe parents are the best judge of school effectiveness. I think parents are the best judge of which school does the best job of teaching their children. I think parents will do a better job of providing school oversight than other "people of this state" ever would. I may be wrong. I'd love to hear from anyone who can point me to widespread examples of parents making poor educational choices for their children.
John's other complaint revolves around the budgeting process for MPS. Specifically that with vouchers public schools could not budget accurately for the next year without knowing enrollment numbers. Again, I'm not an expert at this, and I may be wrong. It seems to me that, with an expanded voucher program in place, public school enrollment will only be going down, not up. If that's case, what's so hard about budgeting? Stick to the same budget that was used in the previous year. It should be more than adequate to cover expenses for the current year. It will probably even have money left over. Am I wrong? Am I missing something obvious that would make the budget process something truly worrisome?