Can the Proposed Voucher Accountability System Work?

If you ask 50 people how they define accountability in education you can safely expect to receive a variety of answers.  Is it fiscal transparency?  Parental satisfaction?  Regulation? The marketplace?  Test scores?

When it comes to accountability in Wisconsin’s school voucher programs the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Since the introduction of school choice to Milwaukee in 1990 the program’s accountability framework has grown steadily to more closely mirror the framework for the state’s public schools.  Soon, if a new bill proposed by Republicans Luther Olsen and Steve Kestell becomes law, the scope of voucher accountability will go even further, empowering the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to cut off funding to chronically low-performing schools.

Conceptually, this bill is a positive step, and a good-faith effort by Senator Olsen and Representative Kestell to improve Wisconsin’s K-12 education system. It is common sense to judge a school based on its outcomes instead of its inputs.  Schools accepting vouchers will be evaluated through an updated state report card, and, if a school scores in the lowest category for three consecutive years it will be given three more years to improve.  If it does not, the school will be terminated from the choice program.  Hard to argue with the logic of it.

The new system would also mean that publicly funded students in private schools would  be included in the state’s student information system.  This would make comparable information for every publicly funded pupil in Wisconsin available.  Though some private schools will disagree, it is a significant step forward for the choice program.  It will enable the performance of the voucher program to be judged more fairly and hopefully kill off many of the voucher program myths that never seem to go away.

The bill’s weaknesses lie mostly in the unknowns.  Some of the controversy surrounding the release of DPI’s first round of public school report cards, as well as the debates and scandals regarding school grading in places like Florida, demonstrate the difficulty of reflecting everything a school does through a single number or letter grade.  Fears that sanctions will be taken against schools based on a flawed ratings system are totally legitimate.    

Further complicating matters is the fractured relationship between DPI and those involved in Wisconsin’s voucher programs.  The department is in charge of implementing Wisconsin’s voucher programs; a task made infinitely more difficult by the very public stance taken my DPI’s leadership against voucher expansion.  Simply put, voucher program leaders do not trust DPI to fairly calculate and present their performance on a high-stakes report card.

There is no simple way to repair the relationship between DPI and voucher leaders, but trust must be reestablished between these two groups for the new accountability system to work.  The alternative would be to administer the report card outside of DPI.  Doing this would be problematic for a host of political and logistic reasons.  Taking small steps to tone down the rhetoric on both sides and demonstrate why increased trust is warranted is a much more realistic and preferable route. 

August 15, 2013

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