Why Choosing a School isn’t Like Shopping for Furniture

After 25 years of school vouchers in Milwaukee it is becoming more and more obvious.  Parents give the voucher program good reviews.   Parents are using their vouchers to choose their child’s school.  But some of the schools they chose were so bad that they were shut down.  When the state finally decided to test voucher school students using the same tests as public school students they finally let the cat out of the bag.  Although some voucher schools performed very well, and some public schools performed poorly, overall the public schools outperformed the voucher schools.  (Please also take note of the afterward of this article.)

Parents performed poorly at choosing schools.   This is no insult to parents.  With slick marketing and rosy promises, there is no doubt that parents, who normally look at schools as trustworthy institutions, could be misled. There was some speculation that test scores were not important to parents.  It is hard to know, but I suspect that parents believed the recruiting pitch of their voucher schools.  Perhaps someone will start asking those questions.  It is obvious, however, that many, many well-meaning parents chose schools that performed poorly.

“Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow at Marquette Law School and long-time education reporter, reviewed several sets of studies. The first, during the initial years of the Milwaukee Parental Choice program, were conducted by UW Professor John Witte.

“In the first years, most of his studies came back as negative to neutral, as to how kids in the voucher program were doing compared to MPS kids, and his reports were not too encouraging,” Borsuk reports.

However, Witte also found that the program was popular with parents, so test scores did not appear to be their top priority.”

(http://wuwm.com/post/milwaukee-voucher-program-turns-25-student-performance#stream/0 )

It is time to question the theory that the competition of schools for the parent voucher money will improve instruction.  This theory makes two assumptions.  It is assumed that parents will have the time (a precious commodity with parents) and the ability to evaluate the quality of education their child will receive at the school before the child actually attends the school.  And it assumes that the economic forces in play when a parent spends a voucher provided by the government follow the same rules as spending money that has been earned.

People have a choice about how they spend the money they have earned.  But they could also choose to save the money, invest it, or give it away.  Voucher money provided by the state must be spent, not saved. And it must be spent on education in prescribed ways. (In some states schools must apply to be approved.)   This is quite different from how money is handled in the economy at large.  Even if you assume rational action, it is not a given that the expenditure of voucher money would follow the same rules as the expenditure of personal income.

The same is true, although the rules differ, for the ESA vouchers.  The money must be spent.  It must be spent on education.   You can’t save it or use it for beer money. Since spending voucher money is regulated, it is not money freely spent. Further  it is a government benefit check. There is talk of allowing parents to “spend the money they paid in” on education.  But we all know that vouchers parents receive are for much more money than those  parents paid to support public education.

And in Milwaukee it appears that many parents do not choose the best schools, although we don’t know why.  It is counter intuitive.  But there it is.  This might have something to do with the fact that Milton Friedman, credited with first advocating for this idea, never did mount a study to determine if vouchers worked before he publicized his theory.

Indeed, since the inception of the program in Milwaukee an amazing percentage (41%) of voucher schools have failed, not academically (or not only academically), but financially.  And the failure rate for entrepreneurial start-up schools (for-profit) is an astounding 67.8%.


No matter what one thinks of school choice, parents are not used to the idea of slick marketing for schools.  Over time this can change.  It is possible that some day more parents be as skeptical  of advertisements for schools as they would be of advertisements for a consumer product.  Time will tell.  But schools are marketed using the same techniques as any business.

There are other problems.  Some for-profit charter schools are managing to stay open even though they perform poorly.  How do they stay open?  Through intense lobbying.  In Indiana not a single poorly performing charter school has been taken over or closed by the state. In theory schools of choice like this are accountable to parents which should be sufficient regulation to insure quality. This mechanism does not seem to function. If  you want a description of how this works read the linked article  But here is the laundry list of problems in Indiana:

Career Academy Charter School opened in 2011 and faltered from the beginning. In fact, the charter school scored a school accountability grade of “F” for three consecutive years. It is still open.  Read how.
Five of six charter  schools rated “F” opened under new management and are still rated “F”.
Charter school boards are unelected and unaccountable.
Charter school supporters contribute big money to political campaigns.
“According to South Bend Community Schools, its enrollment dropped 827 students last year. Their school board president attributes the drop to the opening of Career Academy and Success Academy Charter Schools. Both schools spent more than $98,000 on radio and television ads, as well as marketing and other related services, from Jan. through July last year.”   All of that money comes out of the money the state pays to run the school.

Note: There are some fine charter schools. The best are often not-for-profit school run by the local school board.  But the theory parents will act in ways that insure school accountability does not appear function.

And now we hear about this online charter school in Georgia that takes “tens of millions” of dollars from Georgia  taxpayers and earns a “D” rating on their rating system.   Eighty-two million dollars of state money  ($82,000,000.00!) was spent last year… And it is a for-profit school.  So someone is taking their cut which is not actually spent on education.

You can read about this one as well.


There is another fundamental assumption about about allowing parents to use public funds to attend private schools.  It is assumed that private schools are inherently better than public schools.   It is controversial, but many have always believed that the thing that makes private schools better than public schools is not the teachers, instructional methods, curriculum, or anything else to do with the operation of the school or how and what students are taught.  For those of us who agree with that, the big difference in private schools is in the students themselves.  This includes the level of family support.   If this is so, it would be expected that when students of lesser abilities or lower levels of support attend private schools they might actually do worse, since instruction at elite private schools is geared toward students who catch on quickly.    This study appears to support that idea:


We now have enough data to know that vouchers were oversold.

The next time you hear someone say that allowing school choice (as defined by education reformers – vouchers and charter schools)  will create an competitive environment that will bring about improvement in education for all students…the next time you hear that or something like it, start telling these stories.   Because their “theory” is not supported by life. Welcome to educational reality.

Let’s keep public schools public and private schools private.


Additional Points of Contention

I.   It is not addressed in this blog, but the overall level of all student achievement in Milwaukee, including both traditional public, charter, and voucher schools still  lags behind the rest of the state.  So the expected educational boon brought about by competition has not appeared.  Perhaps another blog post about this some day.  It just didn’t fit in this analysis.

II.  Another quick issue of interest to conservatives:  Courts cannot be trusted to allow voucher schools to operate without government interference.  Maybe I will write more on this later.  For now, check this form which is required from every school wanting to accept voucher money in Louisiana. It resulted from a court case in Louisiana.    You be the judge.

III.   You may hear that vouchers will only be given to parents of limited income.  However, it has already been shown in Milwaukee that the income ceiling for vouchers can easily be increased once they are in place.  So the income limits are, in effect, written in sand.  Click here to see how this has already happened.


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