Milwaukee pays to keep schools empty

Milwaukee Public Schools is spending more than $1.5 million a year on 20 empty buildings, while refusing to rent or sell space to choice schools, charges Bad Faith. As students leave district schools, voucher-accepting private schools and public charters are trying to expand. 

St. Marcus Lutheran School, a high-performing school that takes voucher students, tried to buy the empty Malcolm X Academy building for six years, offering $8 million. Instead the district sold the building to a developer for $2.1 million, but will pay $1 million a year to rent half the space for use as a middle school

Urban progress? Scores are very low

Some big-city districts are making progress, according to the new NAEP TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessments) results released by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Despite the “cheerleading,” gains are minimal and scores are very low for low-income and minority students, responds Fordham’s Andy Smarick.

In fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math, about one out of every four students reaches proficiency in the average large city. The brightest spot is fourth-grade math, where one in three are proficient. Specific examples: In Baltimore, 16 percent of eighth graders read proficiently. In Philadelphia, 18 percent of eighth graders score proficient in math.

. . . Only eight of 21 cities had even one statistically significant gain; two saw a drop in one area; and 11 cities made no significant gain whatsoever.

Washington, D.C. improved the most, followed by Los Angeles and Fresno. But all three remain below the urban average.

Detroit is the lowest performing city in all four categories (fourth and eighth grade reading and math) and it’s getting worse. In eighth grade, 3 percent of student are proficient in math and 9 percent in reading.

Cleveland is next worst with Milwaukee in third place. “We should all hang our heads in shame if we don’t dramatically intervene in these districts,” writes Smarick.

“White students in these cities do quite well—even better than white students elsewhere,” Smarick observes. “They and non-poor students significantly pull up district averages. For example, 71 percent of Atlanta’s white eighth graders are proficient readers.” Low-income, black and Latino students are way, way behind.

Charlotte, North Carolina schools do fairly well, writes Julia Ryan, but overall urban schools are “a mess.”

Milwaukee is worse than Mississippi

Milwaukee is worse for black kids than Mississippi, writes Michael Holzman in Dropout Nation.

Thirteen percent of black men 18 to 64  in Wisconsin are in prison, the highest rate in any state, according to a BBC video, Why does Wisconsin send so many black people to jail?  “Over half the black men in Milwaukee County are now or have been in prison, Holzman writes.

Black families in Milwaukee are no better off financially than in Mississippi, according to Holzman.”If an average black family moved from Milwaukee to Mississippi, their children would probably have a slightly better chance of learning to read by the time they left school,” he writes. They’d be more likely to graduate from high school. In Mississippi, a black family’s young men are “less than half as likely to spend time in prison” compared to young black men in Milwaukee.

Do vouchers help students succeed?

Vouchers don’t do much for students, argues Stephanie Simon on Politico. Voucher programs now cost $1 billion nationwide.

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

Vouchers improve student outcomes, according to high-quality research studies, responds Adam Emerson in Education Gadfly.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New YorkDayton and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results).

But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other.

Research supports voucher benefits, agrees Rick Hess. He quotes himself, and eight others, in an Education Week commentary last year:

Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.

That $1 billion for vouchers “amounts to less than one-fifth of one percent of K–12 spending,” Hess points out.  “We spend north of $600 billion a year on K–12 schooling in the U.S., including tens of billions on employee health care and retirement benefits.”

Why the special ed gap?

Some 13.1 percent of New York City charter school students receive special education services compared to 16.5 percent in traditional public schools. That’s because special-ed students are less likely to apply to charters, concludes Why the Gap?, a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In addition, charters are less likely to place students in special education and more likely to “declassify” them.

There’s no evidence charter schools refuse to admit or “push out” disabled students, writes Marcus Winters, the lead researcher, in the New York Daily News.

Parents of students with special needs are less likely to choose to apply to charter schools, especially autistic students and students with a speech or language disability.

The reason isn’t clear. Disabled students enrolled in special preschools that feed into district schools may be inclined to stay within the system.

The gap grows by another 20% as students progress through the third grade. Nearly all of this growth occurs in the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed category of student disabilities: specific learning disability. That’s important because specific learning disability is a category widely recognized to be over-identified among low-performing students.

On average, students attending New York City’s charter schools “learn more than they would have in a traditional public school,” Winters writes. “Thus, it is possible that some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically.”

More special-needs students enter charter elementary schools than exit, Winters writes.

The difference is that when charter school students with disabilities move, they usually end up in a traditional public school — perhaps because there are more of them, or perhaps because charters accept relatively few students in non-gateway grades — thus reducing the percentage of students with disabilities within the charter sector.

Mobility is high for special-needs students. They are somewhat more likely to leave a traditional public school than a charter.

New York now requires charter schools to set enrollment and attendance targets for students with disabilities, Winters writes. Bill de Blasio, who’s likely to be New York City’s next mayor, advocates requiring charter schools to serve students with special needs at the same rate as traditional public schools.

It would be easy to do: Just hand out more learning disability diagnoses and keep students from leaving special ed. But it wouldn’t be good for students.

A study of Milwaukee charters found similar results, writes Jay Greene. Charters there also were less likely to classify students as learning disabled. He thinks funding incentives are driving special ed placement.

‘A’ is for achievement, not acquiescence

Grades will reflect achievement, not behavior, in Milwaukee’s elementary and middle schools, reports the Journal-Sentinel.

According to MPS, the updated report card identifies the skills students need to master in each grade level, and replaces overall letter grades with an AD for advanced, PR for proficient, BA for basic and MI for minimal. Proficient is the level expected for a student’s grade level.

The report card offers separate feedback about a student’s work habits, behavior and effort — such as following rules or arriving to class prepared — on a scale of 1 to 4.

High schools will use the traditional A-F system to generate grade-point averages necessary for college applications.

This could be an effort to help boys, write Ann Althouse. “I suspect that the credit-giving business had been perverted into an enterprise of teaching compliance and tolerance for boredom and constraint.”

The pension squeeze

Pension reform is essential — and possible– argues a new Fordham report, The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets.

Philadelphia schools could spend as much as $2,361 per pupil by 2020 on retiree costs alone, more than 10 times the current level — and 13 percent of the school district budget —  if the governor’s pension reform plan doesn’t become law, the report warns.

Milwaukee will spend $1,924 per pupil on pensions and health care for retirees, but that’s $1,588 less per pupil because Wisconsin passed Act 10, a reform measure.

Ohio’s pension reform means Cleveland schools will spend less on retirement costs in 2020 than it did in 2011; the new laws are projected to save it about $1,200 per pupil that year.

But pension reform is always costly for someone. Both Wisconsin and Ohio in effect raised employee pension contributions and reduced retiree health benefits. While the changes in Milwaukee will be shared by all teachers, the impact in Cleveland will be felt disproportionately by new teachers, who will be essentially “taxed” to pay for the benefits of current and past employees.

That could discourage young people from entering teaching, the report warns. Young teachers will earn less — and less in the future — to maintain “relatively generous benefits for veteran teachers and current retirees —some of whom will spend more years in retirement than they did in the classroom.”

Pensions for public-sector employees will change dramatically in the future, Fordham predicts. Public employees may be offered 401(k)-style plans or “cash-balance plans. The current system isn’t sustainable.

Lawmakers have promised teachers retirement benefits that the system cannot afford, because the promises were based on short-term political considerations and willfully bad (or thoroughly incompetent) math. (For instance: assumptions about market returns that were wildly optimistic, and assumptions about longevity that were overly pessimistic.) The bill is coming due and someone’s going to get soaked.

Retirement benefits take 10 percent of the school budget in St. Louis, writes Stephen Sawchuk. Student enrollment is declining as pension costs are rising. ” The situation has hastened some of the district’s cost-cutting measures, and fights over whether and how to restructure pensions are looming.”

A roadmap for education reform

A roadmap for education reform presents eight interlocking strategies for dramatically improving  instruction, operations, governance, accountability, talent management, budgeting and leadership of an educational ecosystem. Contributors to the AEI and Wisconsin Policy Research Institute road map use Milwaukee to examine what this overhaul could look like in practice.

Charters get $4,000 less per student

Charter schools received one third less per-pupil funding — about $4,000 less per student — than district-run schools in Denver, Milwaukee, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in 2007 to 2011, according to a University of Arkansas study commissioned by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. “In the large, urban school districts evaluated, traditional public schools receive substantially more local, state and federal funds than public charter schools,” said lead researcher Larry Maloney.

As of 2011, the charter funding gap ranged from $2,684 in Denver to nearly $13,000 in Washington D.C.

Denver—$11,139; $2,684 less than regular public schools
Los Angeles—$8,780; $4,666 less than regular public schools
Milwaukee—$10,298; $4,720 less than regular public schools
Newark—$15,973; $10,214 less than regular public schools
District of Columbia—$16,361; $12,784 less than regular public schools

The research will appear in the September issue of The Journal of School Choice.

A 2010 Ball State study of charter school funding in 24 states and the District of Columbia found that charter school students received 19.2 percent (or $2,247) less per-pupil funding than students in regular public schools.

Choice rules: Red tape or red herring?

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Most private schools will participate in choice programs, even if they’re held accountable for students’ achievement, concludes a new Fordham study, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? Only 25 percent of schools listed state testing requirements as very or extremely important to their decision about whether to participate, but more than half worry about preserving their admissions criteria and religious practices. Fifty-eight percent of non-participating schools cited paperwork burdens and mandatory open-enrollment policies as important factors.

Fordham looked at 13 different school choice models and found very different regulatory burdens. Arizona’s “individual” tax credit scholarship is the least burdened by regulation, while Milwaukee’s long-running voucher program “has accumulated more rules as it has grown older and larger.”

Tax-credit programs will maximize participation by private schools, but “lose a measure of accountability,” researchers conclude.

A record 255,000 children are using vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to attend private school, according to The ABCs of School Choice by the Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice. “The ABCs” describes the 39 private school choice programs in 21 states and Washington, D.C.