Public Policy Forum Blog

"Shopping" for schools isn't a good metaphor

In this week's Crossroads section, the Journal Sentinel hosted another community issues round table discussion, this time about K-12 education. Interestingly, this week one invited guest at the round table was unable to attend, so he was given room to write his own editorial. Brother Bob Smith, President of Messmer Catholic Schools, has this to say about K-12 education:

[The] Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. . . is one of the jewels of our city and state and is talked about and replicated in cities, states and countries around the world. . . This is one of the few times in life in which people with little money can go into a store full of school options and pick what is best for their child. This provides the poor with the same educational choices as the rich. [Emphasis mine.]

The school choice program does indeed open up many options for low-income students, but unfortunately there is no such "store." Parents cannot get information about their private school options anywhere other than the 124 independently run schools themselves. The only place they can even get a list of all the participating schools by grade level and religion is from the Public Policy Forum. And that's about all the information we can provide them. Any parent hoping to get information about student achievement, graduation rates, curriculum, or even after-school programs had better gas up or get a bus pass because these schools are located all across the city. Which means Brother Bob is reaching when he says, "Around Wisconsin, [the voucher program] is parallel to open enrollment for public schools."

Parents interested in open enrollment can simply visit the state's schooling information website to view, and compare, data on all of Wisconsin's public schools, including charter schools. Parents interested in private schooling are not offered this convenience. In fact, over a year ago PAVE, one of the original voucher program proponents, began, for the first time since the program started in 1990, an initiative to collect and disseminate private school information in a parent-friendly way. That effort has since been abandoned.

The result of this opacity? A greater burden on low-income parents. When Brother Bob says the poor have the same educational choices as the rich, he's only half right. The poor could have the same options as the rich, if they knew what they were. In reality, the rich have many more options, mainly because the opportunity costs for them to research schools are much lower. The poor, we have found via survey work, depend on word-of-mouth referrals when choosing schools. Thus, we end up with a choice program in which nearly a third of the schools enroll 99% or more voucher students. Or, in other words, schools that no rich students have chosen.

Author: 
Anneliese Dickman