VOUCHER SCHOOLS IN MILWAUKEE….The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a quite fascinating story today about their city’s 15-year experiment with voucher schools ? by far the oldest and biggest voucher program in the country. The bottom line appears to be that some voucher schools are good, some are bad, and their overall performance is fairly middling. Much like the public school system, there are both bright spots and alarming deficiencies.

But there were a couple of items that caught my attention. First, as you can see from the chart on the right, enrollment in Milwaukee’s voucher schools spiked in 1998-99. Why? Because that’s the year a new law took effect that expanded the voucher program to include religious schools:

The amount of taxpayer money going to pay for religious education in Milwaukee has no parallel in the last century of American life. About 70% of the students in the program attend religious schools.

….If any single factor distinguishes the families and parents at the choice schools from those in [public schools], it is religion. Students in the choice program pray together in class. They read the Bible, the Qur’an or the Torah. They attend Mass. Most schools report that even students from families outside of their faith accept ? and seek out ? religion as part of education.

Now, I have nothing against religious schools. In fact, even public funding for religious schools doesn’t give me all that much heartburn. But if the effect of vouchers is overwhelmingly to provide extra funding to parochial schools, rather than to promote the creation of new schools that want to experiment outside the bounds of the public school bureaucracy, it’s a little hard to see what the point is.

The second item that caught my attention is something that voucher skeptics have been complaining about for a long time: lack of accountability. In a sidebar, the MSJ tells us that a researcher named John Witte was commissioned to study voucher school performance in the early 90s, but when the program was expanded to include religious schools his job was terminated:

When the Legislature expanded the voucher law in 1995, it ended Witte’s role, and there has been little fresh research since then, especially any using newer data.

…. Proposals to do fresh research on the choice program have been blocked in the state Capitol, with partisans on each side blaming the other. Choice advocates have argued for a 12-year study tracking performance of individual students over time. Opponents of the idea say the research would take too long and would not require all voucher schools to take part. They generally want voucher students to take the standardized tests that public school students are required to take, with results made public.

This is absurd. If there’s a secular religion among education reform advocates, it’s accountability and testing. But apparently that religion goes out the window as soon as genuine religion is involved.

I can be talked into experimenting with vouchers and charter schools. But if the real goal is just to expand funding for parochial schools and allow them to operate with no oversight, count me out. High stakes testing has long been presented as a panacea for public schools, and if that’s the case, then it ought to be one for voucher schools as well. They should be willing to put their test scores where their mouths are.

NOTE: Today’s stories were the opening salvo of a 7-part series. The rest of the series will run during the balance of the week.

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