The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

School Choice

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is running a weeklong series on Milwaukee's School Choice program. So far they have been fairly even handed in their reporting, as they have highlighted both the positives and the negatives. I think that their report leads to an overwhelmingly positive conclusion, even when they did highlight negatives. For instance, on Monday they wrote:

About 10% of the choice schools demonstrate alarming deficiencies. The collapse of four schools and the state's limited ability to take action against others have led to some agreement on the need for increased oversight to help shut down bad schools.

10% seems pretty strong to me. I would wager that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) fail at a much higher rate. Moreover, the paper has done an admirable job identifying exactly which schools are failing. Assuming that parents are rational actors they should pull their kids out of these schools in droves. That is, after all, the whole point of choice, and the major limitation of MPS. This has been a bit of a problem, but we'll get to that later.

Parental choice by itself does not assure quality. Some parents pick bad schools - and keep their children in them long after it is clear the schools are failing. This has allowed some of the weakest schools in the program to remain in business.

This is true. What do you do when you're not dealing with rational actors? This vexing question continues to plague economists to this day. My first answer is that there are still positives. It allows kids with parents that do care to escape bad situations where they previously would have been trapped. It is unfortunate that some parents can't (or choose not to) see a bad school for what it is. Fortunately there is a solution to this problem too.

Just because products are operating in a market does not mean that we can not observe fact separately from the outcome of that market. If a certain school sees 60% of its students leave when on average a school sees 10% of its students leave, that school is clearly failing even if it retains enough students to survive financially. I would like to see the city create some kind of minimum requirement for the school to survive based on test scores as well as rate of retainment.

(Ed - Did you just advocate government intervention in a market? Sort of. I occasionally believe that tinkering is justified if the rule imposed is not so much an order as it is an impediment. An example of the former would be ordering the school to use whole language learning techniques in English class. This restricts flexibility and experimentation. An example of the latter would be the English Premiere Soccer League rule wherein the bottom teams are booted from the league, and the top teams of the next league down are promoted. This is not a hard and fast direction on how to play soccer, it is an incentive to play it well.)

The article points to a few examples:

Is it Eastbrook Academy, where elementary school students learn Latin, where top-notch student work fills the hallways and where the principal, Julie Loomis, draws on her years on the staff of blue-blooded Brookfield Academy to set similar expectations for central-city kids?

Sounds pretty good, no? I could see sending my kids there. Other schools can and should learn from this school.

Is it Grace Christian Academy, located in a dimly lighted, rented space in the basement of a church? Here, school leaders say they have developed their own curriculum, but one staff member said privately that there is none. When a reporter visited, many of the bookshelves were empty and students completed worksheets downloaded from an Internet site. Only one of four teachers on the staff has a teaching credential. The principal, Reginald Armstrong, said the founder of Grace Christian is a "very godly woman" who had a vision she should start a school.

This school sounds miserable, and should be shut down. Hopefully it will be. There are lessons in poor schools as well.

Or is it St. Adalbert Catholic School, a century-old school, a once all-Polish but now all-Latino program, where a traditional curriculum is taught by fully licensed teachers in a crowded, bubblingly energetic atmosphere?

Atmosphere is important, but I wish they has included a more substantive analysis. So, how are the choice schools doing overall?

Based on firsthand observations and other reporting, Journal Sentinel reporters concluded that at least 10 of the 106 schools they visited appeared to lack the ability, resources, knowledge or will to offer children even a mediocre education. Most of these were led by individuals who had little to no background in running schools and had no resources other than the state payments.
Hopefully with the publication of this series those ten schools will soon go the way of the dodo., like these four examples:

Four of the worst schools have closed - Alex's, Mandella, Academic Solutions Center for Learning and Louis Tucker Academy. But the closures were the result of outside intervention or financial malfeasance, not parents voting with their feet.
And maybe outside intervention will ultimately be necessary where parental involvement is lacking, but if nothing else we now have a mechanism to identify these students.

Part 2 takes a closer look at accountability. I will be very interested to see if they look into the more notorious MPS schools as part of this series. More as the week progresses.


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