Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Research, Politics, and the School Choice Agenda

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Research, Politics, and the School Choice Agenda

Article excerpt

The strategy of neoconservative advocates of private and religious school choice appears to be to exploit the dissatisfaction of poor, predominantly minority parents in order to achieve the goal of creating a publicly funded private school system free of public control and oversight. If achieved, the authors argue, this alternative system will inevitably reproduce and legally sanction the doctrine of "separate but equal" on a grand scale.

In 1990 Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to adopt a publicly funded voucher program for private schools, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Since then, Milwaukee has become a mecca of sorts for a disparate collection of neoconservative education reformers, journalists, authors, and politicians who hope to interpret the larger significance of the Milwaukee experiment for the rest of the world.

Supporters of the Milwaukee program have argued since its inception that it is a model urban education reform that will improve the academic performance of poor, mostly minority students by empowering their parents to choose their schools. To proponents, the high levels of parental satisfaction with and involvement in the schools they have chosen - reported in the five official annual evaluations conducted between 1991 and 1995 by University of Wisconsin political science professor John Witte - are proof that the program should be expanded and adopted as a national model. Skeptics, however, in addition to raising policy-related and constitutional objections, have pointed out that the Witte evaluations have failed to find higher academic performance among choice students than among similar students attending Milwaukee's public schools.(1)

That is, no evidence of higher achievement among program participants had turned up until this past summer. On August 12 researchers from the University of Houston and Harvard University captured national media attention and electrified education policy makers with the release of their study, "The Effectiveness of School Choice in Milwaukee: A Secondary Analysis of Data from the Program's Evaluation."(2) The authors - Jay Greene, Paul Peterson, and Jiangtao Du - claimed that, in reading and math, children who remained in the MPCP for three or more years "substantially" outperformed a group of students who had applied for but were not admitted to the program.

The results were released just as the national Republican convention was getting under way in San Diego and on the eve of a widely anticipated August 15 court hearing in Madison, Wisconsin, that was intended to determine whether or not an injunction blocking the expansion of the Milwaukee choice program would be lifted.

Two of the authors of the report, Jay Greene and Paul Peterson, immediately took to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with an August 14 article titled "School Choice Data Rescued from Bad Science."(3) They argued that the official annual evaluations that had found no evidence of an achievement advantage for choice students were so "methodologically flawed as to be meaningless." They went on to say that, if the sort of academic success that they were reporting were to be repeated nationwide for all minority students, it "could close the gap between white and minority test scores by at least a third, possibly by more than half."

The political value of the new study quickly became apparent. During an August 22 appearance on "Newshour with Jim Lehrer,"(4) Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and secretary of education in the Bush Administration, repeatedly referred to the "Harvard study" as proof of the wisdom of Bob Dole's campaign pledge to provide low- and middle-income parents with "opportunity scholarships" that they could use to send their children to private or religious schools.

Supporters of private school choice had long chafed at Witte's failure to find any achievement advantage for participants in the MPCP. …

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