Monday, February 27, 2012

New Voucher Study Shows Need for Public Accountability and Transparency

A new report on the nation’s largest voucher program demonstrates why Milwaukee voucher schools should adhere to the accountability and transparency laws followed by the public schools.

The 225-page report was a longitudinal study that compared samples of voucher and public school students using “value-added” achievement data in reading and math. The authors – many of whom have made a career out of researching voucher and charter schools – concluded “in some grades” students who attended voucher schools from 2006 to 2010 “exhibited greater growth in reading achievement than a group of matched Milwaukee Public Schools students.” The differences in math were not statistically significant.

While voucher proponents hailed the study, a closer look at report shows inconsistencies and raises many questions.

For example, a major conclusion [page 4, Report 36] asserts “enrolling in a private high school through MPCP [Milwaukee Parental Choice Program] increased the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college… by 4-7 percentage points.”

But on page 16, Report 30, the report states, "that the majority of students (approximately 75%) who were enrolled in 9th grade in MPCP were not enrolled there by the time they reached 12th grade. ... there is evidence that the students who leave MPCP for public schools are among the lowest performing private school students.”

In other words, three-quarters of voucher 9th graders have left by 12th grade, and the students who remain started out as higher achievers.

If we believe in educating all children, that shouldn’t be a source of pride. It also raises unexplored questions. Why do so many of the more-difficult-to-educate high schoolers leave the voucher schools? Are they “counseled out?” Expelled? Allowed to fall through the cracks? Is this a new form of creaming?

Given such internal inconsistencies in the report, it’s difficult to have confidence in the report’s conclusions.

The report was written by the School Choice Demonstration Project of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. The authors didn’t provide an advance copy of the report to Wisconsin’s State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers who is legally in charge of monitoring the program. As a result, the most widely read news story on the study that appeared on Monday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel didn’t quote him. 

A few interesting facts came out in the reports.

• More than a third of the voucher students (36 percent) who were in the original student cohorts were missing and unable to be located by the fourth year of the study — literally, the researchers don’t know where they are because they are neither in a voucher school nor MPS. They may be in a charter school; they have moved out of the city. This calls into question any ability to make reliable conclusions.

• Only 68% of the teachers in the voucher schools have teaching licenses compared to 94% in the public schools.

• Based on the 2010-2011 WKCE test scores, the achievement gap between blacks and whites were significantly higher in the voucher schools than in MPS. (The report looked at  the gap in reading and math in both 4th and 8th grade.)

One final note. None of the report’s data is disaggregated by school. In other words, there are some good voucher schools and some lousy voucher schools — but the report’s authors don’t let the public know which are which.  The Milwaukee Public Schools, in contrast, releases data on a school-by-school basis, from test scores to mobility rates to attendance to special ed percentages.

The Arkansas report was funded by six foundations. Two of the most prominent are the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, well-known conservative foundations that believe in a universal voucher system as an alternative to public schools.

It was the fourth and final year of the longitudinal study. Efforts to increase voucher school accountability were blocked earlier this month when the Republican-dominated Legislature removed the voucher schools from a proposed statewide reporting system.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Voucher-gate: Scott Jensen and Hispanics for School Choice

The media was flooded this week with reports of secret emails and closed-door deals involving the Republican legislators' redistricting maps in Wisconsin. Voucher lobbyists and supporters were privy to private information and copies of the maps that even Democratic legislators could not get, and Republican legislators had signed agreements to keep the maps secret. 

Details of these behind-the-scenes shenanigans came out as part of a lawsuit challenging the redistricting maps, exposing the link between the Republicans and the voucher movement.  My wife and investigative reporter, Barbara Miner, wrote the following to provide background on the latest scandal in Wisconsin politics.  
— Bob Peterson

Scott Jensen and Hispanics for School Choice

Both are part of an interlocking network of
pro-voucher organizations aligned with the Republican Party

By Barbara Miner, Feb. 18, 2012

News reports this week exposed the close working — and legally questionable — relationship between Republican legislators, lobbyist Scott Jensen and the pro-voucher group Hispanics for School Choice.

Those involved in the controversy have a long-standing working relationship that is part of a strategic alliance between right-wing billionaires; school vouchers supporters, and Republican Party operatives.

Consider this announcement on the website of “The Hispanic Conservative” more than a year ago, on Jan. 14, 2011:

Last week, Executive Board members of Hispanics for School Choice created somewhat of a buzz as they descended upon the State Capitol to circulate their legislative agenda.  Associates from the American Federation of Children and School Choice Wisconsin accompanied HFSC in separate meetings with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Education Committee Chair Steve Kestell, and Secretary of the Department of Administration Mike Huebsch to discuss a timetable of moving the School Choice program forward.
HFSC Board Members were also given exclusive entry to a closed caucus in the Grand Army of the Republic Hearing Room before Assembly Republicans  - an access rarely granted to non-profit organizations of any sort for any reason.  Before the 60-member caucus, Board Members of HFSC were introduced communicating the idea that HFSC aimed to be more of a resource to legislators than a needy lobbyist.[i]

Pro-voucher groups are some of the strongest and best-funded lobbyists in the Wisconsin legislature, and have played an increasingly central role in promoting Gov. Walker’s overall agenda. As state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) noted last year, “The new 800-pound gorilla— actually it's more of a 1,200-pound gorilla —is the tax-funded-voucher groups. They've become the most powerful lobbying entity in the state.”[ii]

Who is Hispanics for School Choice?  What are its connections to Scott Jensen? What is the involvement of the American Federation for Children, a well-known conservative powerhouse headed by a former chair of the Republican Party in Michigan?

Hispanics for School Choice received minimal press notice until Feb 17, 2012, when it was revealed that the group had been privy to election redistricting maps that even Democratic legislators had not seen. The maps were released to Jensen last summer, who in turn forwarded them to the head of Hispanics for School Choice in order to gain his support for the Republican redistricting effort and promote the guise of community involvement.[iii]

Hispanics for School Choice hosted its “coming out event” on January 24, 2011 — 10 days after boasting of its access to Republican leaders in the Wisconsin legislature. The group did not become a household name — but gained behind-the-scenes prominence during the debates over Gov. Scott Walker’s expansion of the voucher program last spring, including private meetings with Gov. Walker.

Zeus Rodriguez is president of the Board of Directors — and the person who received maps of the Republican legislature’s redistricting from Scott Jensen. (Rodriquez is also president of the St. Anthony School, which as a result of the voucher program has become the largest Catholic elementary school in the country. Officials from St. Anthony’s have been prominent at various legislative hearings on public funding of private and religious schools.)
Other board members of Hispanics for School Choice include Victor Huyke, owner of El Conquistador Newspaper; Daisy Cubias, Staff Assistant to Mayor Tom Barrett; Ivan Gamboa, VP of Tri-City Bank; and Aaron Rodriguez, owner of the Hispanic Conservative website.
The groups’ Advisory Board is chaired by James Klauser, former Secretary of Administration for Governor Tommy Thompson. Other members include Jose Delgado, founder of the American Transmission Company; Jose Vasquez, CEO of three non-profits in Milwaukee; Anselmo Villarreal, President and CEO of La Casa de Esparanza; and Susan Mitchell, President of School Choice Wisconsin.[iv]

Hispanics for School Choice lists its partners as School Choice Wisconsin and American Federation for Children.

On May 4, 2011, Gov. Walker hosted Hispanics for School Choice at the Capitol, holding private meetings with them and posing for a group photo.[v]

Jensen served in the Wisconsin assembly from 1992 until 2006, when he was indicted and later convicted for having his staff work on campaign issues on state time. He is a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children/Alliance for School Choice. According to a Sept 21, 2011 report by Madison-based journalist Bill Lueders:

Jensen is also registered as one of the three contract lobbyists for the federation, which reported spending $56,659 on lobbying Wisconsin state government in the first six months of 2011. This included $6,680 to Jensen for 32 hours of lobby work, which comes to more than $200 an hour.

The bulk of the federation's lobby effort in Wisconsin is handled by its government affairs associate, Brian Pleva, formerly an aide for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon. Former Fitzgerald chief of staff Jim Bender left to become a lobbyist for School Choice. …

The influx of school choice money into Wisconsin is most easily tracked in direct contributions to political candidates. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's analysis found that individuals and political action committees associated with school choice gave $125,220 in campaign contributions to Walker and another $181,627 to current legislators and committees, most of them Republicans, in the 2009-10 election cycle. …

Many of the direct contributions to Wisconsin candidates from school choice proponents come through a conduit called the Fund for
Parent Choice. Conduits bundle money from individual donors to present to candidates collectively.

The American Federation for Children is a national group founded in January 2010, with a budget of roughly $4 million.[vi] The federation is the most prominent national group in the movement to use public tax money to fund private and religious schools.

The group is led by Betsy DeVos, a former chair of the Republican Party of Michigan and the sister of Erik Prince, the leader of Xe, the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater that led the privatization of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Betsy is married to Dick DeVos, son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, who himself is a long-time supporter of right-wing causes.

Betsy DeVos has deep pockets — and her involvement in partisan politics goes back decades. Back in 1997 she wrote an op-ed in which she said her family “is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party.” She went on to say that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point.”[vii]

The federation is an outgrowth of Advocates for School Choice, which had also been headed by Betsy DeVos. The group became embroiled in controversy after one of its partner groups headed by DeVos, All Children Matter, was fined $5.2 million by Ohio election officials for illegally funneling contributions.[viii]

According to Madison-based journalist John Nichols, the group “was also fined for political misconduct in Wisconsin, where the group’s 2006 campaigning violated campaign finance laws by expressly urging voters to cast ballots against legislative candidates who backed public education.”[ix]

The federation works in collaboration with voucher and conservative groups across the country. Its partners include the Heartland Institute (recently in the news for its “Operation Angry Badger”[x]), the Heritage Foundation, and a range of pro-voucher organizations organized both nationally and on a state-by-state basis.[xi] In Wisconsin, its state ally is School Choice Wisconsin, headed by Susan Mitchell (who, as previously noted, is also on the board of Hispanics for School Choice. The interlocking agendas and personnel among pro-voucher groups would make a multinational conglomerate blush with envy.)

The American Federation for Children is a 501(c)4 of the non-profit Alliance for School Choice, and as such is allowed to make political donations. In addition to being a lobbyist, Jensen is a senior advisor for the federation. Jensen had long supported vouchers when in the state legislature; after his indictment, he was hired by the Alliance for School Choice in 2004 to promote school vouchers on a state-by-state level.

Madison-based journalist John Nichols, in a report in the Nation magazine, notes that the American Federation for Children “spent an estimated $820,000 on independent expenditures and phony issue ad activity in the 2010 fall legislative races.” The figures were based on data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.[xii]

On May 9, 2011, the American Federation for Children invited Gov. Scott Walker to deliver a keynote address on school vouchers at its national policy summit in Washington, D.C.

A list of the funders of school voucher organizations reads like a Who’s Who of right-wing foundations and billionaires. Think Progress— a non-partisan liberal blog focusing on investigative journalism — outlined some of the funding links in a May 21, 2011 report. Funders just for the Alliance for School Choice alone included DeVos, the Wal Mart Foundation, the Chase Foundation of Virginia, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the powerful Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart fame).

Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has donated some $400,000 to the Alliance for School Choice over the years. [xiii] The Bradley Foundation has long been one of the most important ideological and financial supporters of vouchers. It made an estimated $41 million in grants for school voucher initiatives from 1986 to 2003 alone, and subsequent grants have maintained a similar pace.[xiv]

In Wisconsin, one of the most essential operatives in the school voucher movement is Susan Mitchell — head of School Choice Wisconsin and a board member of Hispanics for School Choice. School Choice Wisconsin had a budget of $1.279 million in 2009, and directors included conservative notables such as Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, former Lt. Governor and Republican state senator Margaret Farrow, and nationally prominent voucher advocate Howard Fuller (until January 2010). Mitchell’s compensation last year was more than $200,000.[xv]

— Barbara Miner, a Milwaukee-based journalist, has followed the voucher movement for more than 20 years. She is the author of the forthcoming book Lessons from the Heartland: Milwaukee Wisconsin, public schools, and the fight for America’s Future (New Press, Fall 2012).

To get a downloadable pdf of this article by Barbara Miner, click here.

[i] The Hispanic Conservative website is run by Aaron Rodriguez, secretary of Hispanics for School Choice. This excerpt, under the headline “A Buzz at the State Capitol,” is available at:
[ii] Bill Lueders, “Selling Out Public Schools,” Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, The Capital Times, Sept. 21, 2011, accessed via
[iii] “Jensen got early look at legislative district maps,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 18, 2012.
[v] Photos of the event, including a photo of Walker with the group’s leaders, are available at flickr:
[vi] The American Federation for Children, 990 tax form for 2010.
[vii] For a multi-part series on DeVos and her crusade against public education, see the website on the religious right, “Talk to Action Reclaiming Citizenship, History and Faith” and its report available at:
[x] Operation Angry Badger was a $610,000 effort to: 1. Recruit and promote superintendents who support Act 10;  2. Explain the benefits of Act 10; 3. Document the shortcomings of public schools in Wisconsin; 4. Expose teacher pay in key districts; 5. Create blogs that shadow small town newspaper coverage of the controversy. The campaign was based on leaked documents on the institute’s 2012 budget. The institute said in a Feb 15, 2012 statement the documents were stolen, and the authenticity of the documents had not been confirmed. The statement did not specifically disown Operation Angry Badger.
[xi] For a list of its allied organizations go to:
[xii] See John Nichols article from the Nation, Aug. 8, 2011 at:
[xiii] Milwaukee Journal Sentinel searchable database on Bradley donations. Access at:
[xiv] John J. Miller, “Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America” The Philanthropy Roundtable, Washington, D.C. 2003. The report was based on Bradley and Olin Foundation annual reports, and interviews and assistance from foundation employees and grantees.
[xv] School Choice Wisconsin 990 tax form for 2010.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gov. Walker privileges private voucher schools and once again breaks the public trust

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues to promote the privatization of public education while refusing to hold voucher and semi-private charter schools accountable.

On Feb. 9, Gov. Walker released a new “Education Reform” bill (Senate Bill 461) that reneged on previous promises to include all schools receiving public dollars in a statewide accountability system.

Most observers had expected the law to include a common report card for public schools, private voucher schools and charter schools. That accountability provision was pulled at the last minute, apparently under pressure from voucher and charter school lobbyists.

Tony Evers, State Superintendent of the DPI, criticized Walker’s backtracking. “This missed opportunity is more than a step backward,” he said.

Last July, Walker co-authored an opinion with Evers in which he said  “that every school enrolling publicly funded students - traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools in choice programs - should be part of this new accountability system.”

Walker repeated that pledge last month in his Jan. 25 State of the State speech when he said,  “Every school that receives public funds – be it a traditional public school, a charter school or a choice school – will be rated by a fair, objective and transparent system.”

A few days after Walker released his truncated legislation, the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum issued a research brief detailing the private voucher schools’ expansion, thanks to Walker’s initiatives last spring. (Walker lifted the cap on voucher enrollment, allowed families earning up to 300% of the poverty level to receive vouchers, expanded vouchers beyond Milwaukee to include the city of Racine, and permitted high schools to charge additional tuition to higher-income families. See Barbara Miner's, "Take a Stand Against Vouchers.")

The forum’s brief, “Significant Growth in School Choice,” noted that Wisconsin taxpayers are spending an additional $14.2 million this year on the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program. This contrasts sharply to the cut of approximately $84 million of state aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools for the same school year. (Overall, Walker cut $840 million statewide in funding to public schools last year, while significantly expanding the private voucher school program.)

The brief also reported that most of the new students enrolling in voucher schools were already enrolled in  private schools, underscoring that the voucher program is not about increasing options but funneling public dollars into private institutions.

The Public Policy Forum based its data on surveys of voucher schools (five schools refused to return any information) and from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Among its findings:

• 2,200 additional students entered the Milwaukee voucher program this year and “most of the new voucher users appear to have already been enrolled in a private school.” This brings the total of Milwaukee students receiving public tax dollars to attend private schools to 23,198.

• The additional cost this year to tax payers for the expansion of Milwaukee program was $14.2 million. The new private voucher program in Racine cost over $330,000 and is expected to expand significantly when enrollment caps are eliminated in the next two years. The total cost of the two programs will be $150.9 million.

• Religious schools enroll 85% of all voucher students, at a total cost to the public of $128.3 million.

• “At no grade level did voucher students, on the whole, out-perform MPS students in either reading or math.” The brief described a “wide variance in performance” among the voucher schools “with a handful comparing favorably to MPS and many more having proficiency rates far lower.”

Unfortunately, the Public Policy report does not mention special education, long recognized as an essential issue in safeguarding the rights of all students. Approximately 1.6% of the private voucher school students are classified as special needs students, compared to more than 19% of MPS students.  It’s a glaring, and disturbing omission, akin to researchers in the 1960s neglecting to mention racial disparities.

Throughout our nation’s history public schools have been the corner stone of our political democracy. The stronger, the more inclusive, and the more democratic public schools are, the stronger our democracy. Walker’s privileging of private schools over public and democratically controlled schools is one more reason we need to recall him.

— — —
For a concise summary of the Milwaukee Voucher Program as it relates to issues of class and race in Milwaukee, see Barbara Miner’s essay, “MPS at the Crossroads.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Multicultural education: Ketapanen

The need for anti-racist multicultural education was underscored this week in Shawano, Wisconsin.  Seventh grader Miranda Washinawatok was suspended from her basketball game after she said a few words in the Menimonee language in front of her teacher. Miranda, who speaks both English and Menominee, attends Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Shawano, with a school population that is 60% Menominee.

Miranda was benched for “attitude” problems, according to media reports. The alleged “attitude problem” was that Miranda said the Menominee words “posoh”
(hello) and “ketapanen” (I love you) to a classmate.

According to the Native News Network, “The teacher went back to where the two were sitting and literally slammed her hand down on the desk and said, ‘How do I know you are not saying something bad?’” (For teachers who might want to use this story as part of a current events lesson, WBGA-TV out of Green Bay has a report that includes an interview with Miranda.)

Thousands of miles away geographically, but just next door in terms of backward ideology, school officials in Arizona are holding fast to their ban on Mexican American studies in the Tucson Public Schools. They also banned several books, including Rethinking Columbus. Tucson teacher, Curtis Acosta, wrote a moving open letter explaining the details and impact of the ban, showing what the administration forced him to cut out of writing assignments. The Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association’s Executive Board, meanwhile, decided last week to donate $500 to the Tucson teachers’ legal challenge to the state law.

Progressive educators around the country responded to the Tucson ban with a “No History is Illegal Campaign.” The Network of Teacher Action Groups encouraged educators to teach lessons from the banned curriculum.

It’s ironic that the first day of the Tucson ban occurred on Feb. 1, the start of Black History Month. Struggles by African American students in the 1960s won not only Black studies departments and classes, but inspired peoples of many races and cultures to demand that their histories be taught as well. (Additional resources and lesson plans on Black History, Mexican American history and other important topics can be found at the Zinn Education Project.)

While in most school districts and communities there are not such blatant acts of racism as in Shawano and Tucson, the fact is that vast majority of school districts ignore the necessity of anti-racist multicultural teaching and curriculum.

Three years ago in Milwaukee, pushed by a coalition of educator and community groups, the Milwaukee Public Schools established the CLEaR Justice Initiative to promote anti-racist multicultural education. This effort has faltered, due to budget cuts. The Milwaukee teachers’ union, in coalition with community partners, is developing a proposal to the administration and school board to reignite anti-racist multicultural teaching and professional development in the district.

Many new people to the district – teachers, parents and administrators – don’t know of a school board policy still on the books that requires that “Students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes through their participation in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse curriculum.”

As educators, we have a moral and legal obligation to make sure we teach such a “culturally diverse curriculum.” And administrators should pay attention to reports and scholarly research showing the link betwee cultural competency and higher academic achievement.

African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. puts it this way: “We’re worried when Johnny can’t read. We’re worried when Johnny can’t add. But shouldn’t we be worried, too, when Johnny tramples gravestones in a Jewish cemetery or scrawls racial epithets on a dormitory wall?”
‘ ‘ ‘ ‘
I encourage educators, parents and community members to contact me if they want to help promote anti-racist multicultural education in MPS. I would also like to hear from people around the country about how they are promoting multicultural curriculum in their school district.