Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The 23-Year-Long School Day

Some years ago, sunset clauses were all the rage. Politicians on the prowl for waste, fraud and abuse in government wanted every law and every program to have one, to guard against laws that outlive their usefulness and get rid of government programs that do not work.

The sun rose 23 years ago on Wisconsin's private school voucher program. Those pushing it at the time made bold claims about how it would transform our education system. They said it would not only boost the achievement of students benefiting from the public vouchers paying for them to attend a private or religious school, but would also lift all boats by creating competition among schools and thereby stimulating innovation benefiting students regardless of where they studied.

Hasn't happened. Twenty-three years after the school choice program was established, students in voucher schools aren’t doing noticeably better than public school students. By some measures, they are doing worse. In addition to failing to budge test scores, the voucher program has been plagued over the years by story after story after story of poor performance, safety code violations, mismanagement and fraud.

The promised system transformation hasn't materialized either. All boats haven't been lifted. The competition that begets innovation that begets system-wide school improvement hasn't worked. Yet the sun hasn't set on this failed experiment after two decades and then some. It remains high in the sky.

Peddlers of this particular brand of school "reform" do a lot of yammering about the 3 R's and getting back to basics. But they have failed to deliver the all-important fourth R: results.

After 23 years, you’d think that if a state program failed to deliver the promised results and had a checkered management history to boot, lawmakers would be talking about ending it. Instead, they are debating its expansion.

If you want to know why the voucher program has nine lives, you might want to start by following the money. Nearly $10 million in 10 years from voucher advocates to help politicians who are friendly to the program certainly helps explain why lackluster test scores and even voucher school administrators being sent to jail haven't done it in. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Multi-issue groups whose agendas include lobbying for school vouchers made another $63 million in campaign contributions over the last decade, and spent an additional $24 million on their own campaign advertising to elect pro-voucher politicians and defeat those who question the program's effectiveness.

That's close to $100 million pumped into Wisconsin elections by interests with a stake in making sure the sun doesn't go down on vouchers. Goes to show that political money and lots of it can ensure that results don't matter. Waste, fraud and abuse don't matter.

Here is a government program whose fate is not determined by results. All that really matters is how many campaign donations are generated by propping up the program, even if it doesn't work.

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