With major votes on school vouchers pending at the legislature, what appeared in the pro-voucher Democrat-Gazette this morning but effusive praise for the Milwaukee voucher program by a former Milwaukee school superintendent, Howard Fuller, and Patrick Wolf, part of the Walton-funded voucher/charter promotion unit at the University of Arkansas.

One key point worth remembering about the 500-student “pilot” voucher program the governor has proposed in Arkansas. The op-ed authors acknowledge that Milwaukee”s program, too, started as a 500-student voucher program and has grown to cover more than 28,000.

Big points? Parents like it. Of course they do. What parent would ever admit making a poor choice for a child? Student achievement? They say “most” evidence supports the value of the program. That’s a wiggle word as many other reports show. They move right along to “non-test-score outcomes.” There’s a lot of this going around in the school “choice” movement because the studies DON’T show much academic benefits in test scores anywhere from voucher and charter programs. So they talk about graduation rates or police records or other stuff they correlate with scant proof of causation.

The National Education Policy Center has a wealth of contrary viewpoints to those of the UA “reform” unit on the value of vouchers, charter schools and so-called scholarship programs (a euphemism for vouchers) being advanced in Arkansas. Here, for example, they debunk the UA’s claim of less crime by voucher school graduates.

Advertisement

A key finding in a Wall Street Journal review of voucher programs perhaps could be interpreted as saying “cream-skimming works best.” In other words, you don’t want to just let any old student into private schools. That’s a fact charter schools learned long ago.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of the data suggests vouchers worked best when enrollment from voucher students was kept low. As the percentage of voucher students rises, the returns diminish until the point when there is little difference between the performance of public and private institutions. The vast majority of private schools participating in the program today have high percentages of publicly funded students.

The city’s nearly 29,000 voucher students, on average, have performed about the same as their peers in public schools on state exams, the analysis shows. The successful voucher students, who often performed better than their public-school peers, were mainly found at private schools that worked to balance numbers of voucher students and paying ones.

If Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin is right, that “open education” is the ticket, why not drop about 1,000 of the poorest black and brown children from the Little Rock School District at the front door of Episcopal Collegiate or Pulaski Academy with state voucher checks, and say, “Show us your stuff.”