Milwaukee Redux: Finding Fault With a Voucher Analysis
To the Editor:
Alex Molnar's Commentary "Unfinished Business in Milwaukee" (Nov. 17, 1999) is impressive but incomplete. Admittedly, he provided a thorough study of the available data regarding the success of these schools, made excellent suggestions for securing additional data, and very appropriately recommended the development of an evaluation plan acceptable to both advocates and opponents of voucher programs. However, he made two large errors—one by definition, and one by omission.
The flawed definition arises, at it always does in these discussions, through the use of misleading terms. Referring to "government-financed private-school-voucher programs" creates the false impression that a voucher program takes government money to fund private schools.
Vouchers do not take government money to fund private schools. Public schools are funded primarily through property taxes. "We the people" pay all taxes: It is our money. The voucher concept originally involved reducing property taxes through a per-child tax credit to give families a choice in directing their money to the educational institutions they have chosen for their children.
The issue of choice leads us to Mr. Molnar's second error—the error of omission. His concern for achievement data would have us think academic achievement is the only criterion for discerning whether voucher programs should exist at all.
As the principal of a Roman Catholic school (the country's largest private school system), I can say that while superior academic achievement is certainly a priority, it is not the sole reason we exist. Our fundamental mission was stated quite clearly by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1972 in its pastoral letter "To Teach as Jesus Did." The threefold purpose of Catholic education is to proclaim the gospel, build a Christian community, and serve the human community.
This faith-based education is the choice many parents seek. They want their children to be educated in schools that allow them to pursue the religious freedom granted them in the U.S. Constitution.
The concept of a voucher is a response to two unasked questions:
(1) Has the government created a monopoly in education by requiring children to attend school and then offering only one system for which parents are forced to pay through property taxes?
(2) Has the state violated the constitutional amendment regarding separation of church and state by discriminating against poorer families who wish their children to have a religiously integrated education by forcing them to pay for public education and thus making it more difficult for these families to exercise their choices of faith?
Educators must be diligent in ensuring that they act in the interest of all children and not in their own systemic interests when lobbying for or against voucher initiatives. Likewise, we must be more concerned with changes that benefit students than with preserving the system at any cost.
St. John Notre Dame School
To the Editor:
Milwaukee's low-income voucher program is not capable of yielding significant insights about school reform through school choice. The expanded Milwaukee program still lacks virtually all of the key elements of competition—universal choice, market-determined tuition, and nondiscrimination by the government so that private school students have as much public support as do public school students.
The Milwaukee vouchers only shuffle a few children among existing choices. The effects of that aren't significant, and vouchers aren't needed to compare the test scores of low-income private and public school students. In addition, the only important message of such a comparison is a reminder that a nation at risk needs to transform the system and change the choices. As Mr. Molnar and many others have pointed out, most private schools' test scores are comparable to the public school scores that have made school reform the nation's top political issue. The nation is at risk because the better schools are still inadequate.
The time it takes to set up, run, evaluate, and act on a choice experiment that tests market forces guarantees that another cohort of children will reach adulthood without the skills they need. Real competition—the reason we need universal, nondiscriminatory choice—is already a proven winner. Education needs to join the rest of the economy, where competition is the norm.
What is being revealed in Milwaukee? Families apply for vouchers if they think their children will be more successful at another school. The issue the data can resolve is this: Do applicants know their children and the local schooling options well enough to pick the best one? Most people would confidently predict a "yes" answer even if the study weren't limited to applicants. Actually, they wouldn't see the issue as important or controversial enough to demand a formal experiment.
Except for the small size of even the expanded program that took effect in Milwaukee in 1998, the focus of school choice studies should be the school system, not voucher students. The claims of Milwaukee public schools' improvement are not based on academic data, and no one is studying the effect of additional money and academically deficient public school students on Milwaukee's private schools.
America's unfinished business is extending freedom of choice to every family, or if politically necessary, implementing it in one metropolitan area first. Public support of education should not depend on who owns the school (public or private) parents choose.
San Antonio, Texas
To the Editor:
Alex Molnar says that no one can say for sure how Milwaukee's school choice program has affected racial segregation. He cites "missing" data on this issue as a reason for more evaluation of Milwaukee's program prior to expansion elsewhere.
In a new report, Howard L. Fuller and George Mitchell address several questions that Mr. Molnar says no one can answer. Mr. Fuller and Mr. Mitchell reviewed sources Mr. Molnar failed to take into account, including the yearly census of all public and private school-age children in Milwaukee conducted by the Milwaukee public school system. The two authors also analyzed enrollment data from a representative sample of private choice schools that participated in a survey conducted by Wisconsin's Legislative Audit Bureau.
In a Dec. 2, 1999, editorial, under the headline "Diversity Flourishing in Choice Schools," The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel called the Fuller-Mitchell report "well documented" and concluded that Milwaukee's choice "program has enhanced racial diversity among the city's students" (emphasis in original). The Fuller-Mitchell conclusions are similar to independent findings in Cleveland by Harvard University researcher Jay P. Greene. ("News in Brief," Dec. 1, 1999.)
Elsewhere in his Commentary, Mr. Molnar accepts at face value claims by anti-voucher organizations that choice schools have violated program rules in their treatment of students. He fails to mention that, to date, none of the 8,000 choice students or their parents have claimed unfair or discriminatory treatment. In fact, as recently as Nov. 17, 1999, at a public hearing in Milwaukee, officials from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said they were unaware of any such complaint in the 10-year history of the program. Legislators repeatedly asked choice opponents if their claims arose from even a single complaint from a student or parent. Repeatedly, the answer was no.
While Mr. Molnar laments what he considers insufficient data on academic achievement, he offers a telling clue as to the level of scrutiny he regards as sufficient: He writes, "Rumor is that its voucher students [at Catholic schools] are performing less well than their public school counterparts." When did "rumor" become an accepted substitute for actual evidence?
Mr. Molnar's overall theme—the absence of data—appears to conflict with his July 1997 Education Week Commentary, "The Real Lesson of Milwaukee's Voucher Experiment." Then, he was comfortable drawing definitive, negative, and erroneous conclusions about the choice program and several people who had evaluated it.
American Education Reform Council
Vol. 19, Issue 17, Page 40