(Guest Post By Marty Lueken)
Parents in Milwaukee, home to the oldest school voucher program in the nation, are fortunate to have access to a variety of educational options. But many, including education reformers, would agree that school choice is not a silver bullet for solving the problems that Milwaukee and many other parts of the country face today. But choice is certainly, and must be, a significant part of the solution.
The struggling Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system and its inability to meet the needs of their students’ families in Milwaukee has led to parents leaving district schools to attend charter schools and private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and, in turn, created an abundance of buildings that are vacant and public schools that currently operate at significantly below capacity.
This is the subject of a recent report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which describes how the district (and city) has historically blocked the sale of vacant facilities to private and charter schools widely regarded as among the best in the city. Such behavior isn’t surprising, given the institutional incentives in place for districts to prevent good schools from expanding.
The analysis also estimates the utilization rates of every public school in the city. It identifies over two dozen buildings that are operating at below 60 percent capacity. Many of these schools are the most at-risk schools in the city, with declining enrollments, and among the lowest performing in the city. They have twice as many 9-1-1 phone calls per student and a much higher habitual absenteeism rate than other public schools.
Put simply, a school with lots of unused space is a solid signal for identifying struggling schools. Imagine walking by an almost-empty restaurant on a crowded street at dinner time on Saturday – some people might interpret the scene as a signal about the quality of its food or service is not good. That restaurant is likely on its way out of business unless it takes a different approach to find effective ways to draw customers.
And although schools like these are prime for turnaround and reform, a lack of accountability allows them to continue operating. Unlike restaurants (or private schools), public schools don’t go “out of business.” So what can be done to improve struggling schools like these?
An interesting option for reform is the recovery school district (RSD) – the turnover of chronically failing schools to another entity such as the state or an independent board – and it will likely come up for public debate in the Wisconsin Legislature pretty soon. This is a novel approach that is currently implemented in Louisiana and, recently, Tennessee and Michigan. The idea behind it is that the bottom x% of schools close, re-organize, and re-open under the auspices of an independent authority. This body has the authority to grant an operating agency, such as a charter school, authority to run the school. In New Orleans, takeover by charter schools is the hallmark of the RSD in New Orleans, ground zero for this relatively new reform.
Evidence of its effectiveness and promise is emerging. Most recently, an NBER study on charter takeover in Louisiana and Boston found large gains in learning by students “grandfathered in.” In the Boston case, these students, who essentially were passive choosers, benefited as much as students who were assigned seats through lotteries (i.e. students who were active choosers).
Public schools in New Orleans were in dire shape prior to Hurricane Katrina, with 67% of its students attending low-performing schools. Then Katrina wiped out the city and sank the public school bureaucracy in its swamp of inefficiency. This allowed changes to be made which facilitated smoother takeovers. By 2010, after the RSD took off, the rate of students in schools failing to serve them was cut in half to 34%. The RSD is also closing the gap between their students and the rest of the state – its students experienced the fastest growth than any other public school district in Louisiana.
These results signal that RSD may be an effective policy. But it’s still a fairly new program, and important considerations remain. Does RSD policy simply replace one layer of bureaucratic oversight with another? The long-term outcome may just be that the RSD gets hijacked by special interests, as with public school districts.
The RSD may be a possible short-term solution for turning around failing schools that have no chance of succeeding within the public school system. But a long-term solution? And what should be done, if anything, after a school in the RSD turns around?
These questions remain up in the air, but there may be reason to give pause. RSDs depend on mission-driven, highly talented people willing to close schools. As Jay once pointed out before, it may be a matter of time before those people leave and the RSD begins to look more like the regular school district. We shouldn’t expect RSDs to be an enduring reform strategy like school choice.
In the meantime, the Louisiana experience so far is indicative of a highly minority, poor urban school district on its way to becoming an “A” system. And it may be worth experimenting with in other places with a large number of declining schools. Will Milwaukee become the next RSD laboratory?
Martin F. Lueken is the Education Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a nonprofit law firm and policy center based in Milwaukee that advocates for individual liberty, constitutional rights, limited government, the rule of law, and a robust civil society.