A Surprise Report – What’s Going On Here?

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s October 23rd edition is a report about a new study from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, and Milwaukee has been a major part of their focus since it became the nation’s premier center for trying the idea. This is an institute that is funded largely by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a strong advocate of school choice. For this study, it only examined parents choosing public schools within the Milwaukee Public Schools system. It does not discuss those who select private schools in the publicly funded voucher program or charter schools that are not affiliated with MPS.

From the Journal Sentinel article:

That reality [of the study] can be summed up in two phrases: “bad schools” and “little change.”

Bad schools: A Journal Sentinel investigative report in 2005 of the then-115 schools in the voucher program found that about 10% showed startling signs of weak operations. In short, many parents were choosing bad schools and sticking with them. Escalated government oversight of schools’ business practices and a new requirement that all voucher schools be accredited by an outside organization have played roles in putting most of those schools out of business.

Little change: Milwaukee has been a national laboratory for school reform such as the voucher program, yet there is little evidence that it has yielded substantially improved academic results – at least so far. Test scores in MPS, especially for 10th-graders, have been generally flat for years. The record of the voucher schools is unclear, though results from a major study of the program are supposed to begin coming soon.

One of the main arguments for school choice was that, with little government oversight of schools, parental decisions in a free market would dictate which schools thrive. However, the results of this study proved otherwise.

The overall conclusion: Only 10% of MPS parents make school choices by a process that involves considering at least two schools and that brings academic performance data from a school into the choice.

“Given this number, it seems unlikely that MPS schools are feeling the pressure of a genuine educational marketplace,” wrote the report’s author, researcher David Dodenhoff.

Not surprisingly, the authors concluded,

“The report you are reading did not yield the results we had hoped to find” George Lightbourn, a senior fellow at the institute, wrote in the paper’s first sentence.

It is worth noting that this is the same institute that has issued reports attacking choice critics, contesting for example the widely accepted idea that class size reduction has an effect on academic achievement.

One has to wonder if the assumptions of this report are correct, then how much is left of the argument for choice? If the market for choice doesn’t work, then what is left for this concept?

Robert Godfrey


Filed under AMPS, Best Practices, Gimme Some Truth

3 responses to “A Surprise Report – What’s Going On Here?

  1. Robert Godfrey

    And if you want to read a messy and illogically thought out rejoinder to this Journal-Sentinel piece, read what a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute wrote to the Cap Times in response to this coverage of their study http://www.madison.com/tct/opinion/column/254749

  2. TJ Mertz

    This quote from the op ed Robert linked to is priceless:

    “While the market pressures of public school choice will undoubtedly spur some MPS schools to improve.”

    The conclusions of “research” by WPRI are based on faith — faith in the market — and not evidence. This time they were unable to stretch the findings to fit their faith and are in something of a panic. So they end up with unfounded assertions about what will “undoubtedly” happen.

    Stuff like this gets laughed out of freshman seminar rooms. The Cap Times should be ashamed for having given it space.

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