Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Conservatives Against Choice? What's Going On?

In this morning's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel comes this report about a new study from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. The full report apparently isn't out yet (later today, I think), but the Sentinel article seems clear enough.

The overall conclusion: Only 10% of MPS parents make school choices by a process that involves considering at least two schools and that brings academic performance data from a school into the choice.

"Given this number, it seems unlikely that MPS schools are feeling the pressure of a genuine educational marketplace," wrote the report's author, researcher David Dodenhoff.

Dodenhoff also concluded that parental involvement in MPS schools is low - he estimated that 34% of MPS parents could be considered "highly involved" in their children's schools. And he said his conclusions were probably on the high side because people tend to give the "right" answers when asked questions such as whether they are involved parents, even when the answers are untrue.

It's important to understand that
the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute [is] a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, when Milwaukee became the nation's premier center for trying the idea. The institute is funded in large part by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an advocate of school choice.

"The report you are reading did not yield the results we had hoped to find," George Lightbourn, a senior fellow at the institute, wrote in the paper's first sentence.

This is the same institute that has issued reports attacking choice critics, contesting the widely accepted idea that class size reduction has an effect on academic achievement, etc. An article on the front page of their website honestly argues that the incredible racial disparity in the Wisconsin prison population isn't problematic. (You can go through the reports listed on their website.)

The finding in this new report seems to strike at the heart of the assumptions behind the choice program in the first place, as the scholars apparently admit.

I am not an expert in the choice battles, but I have also heard anecdotally (and the article notes) that some choice proponents have become more realistic about the need for oversight of choice schools, among other things. I also know that there have always been a range of more and less dogmatic points of view behind the choice effort, and that some of the choice proponents in Milwaukee are pretty thoughtful people whether one agrees with them or not.

Even acknowledging this, however, has there been another example of a conservative institute like this, funded by the Bradley Foundation of all places, that has put out such a damning report? If this report is correct, then what, exactly, is left of the argument for choice? If the market doesn't work, then "choice" won't work, right?

(It's important to note that this isn't particularly new information. Less ideologically connected scholars have reported much the same thing in more "reputable" academic venues.)

I wonder what is going on, here? Any thoughts from those more deeply informed about the choice "movement"?

Note: the article states that the report concludes:
"Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district's schools. . . . The question is whether the district, its schools and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace reforms more radical than public school choice and parental involvement."
More radical than choice? What does this imply?

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