Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Doyle Denying Educational Opportunity

Editorial: Time past due for accord

From the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Jan. 1, 2006

It's crunch time now for a deal between the Democratic governor and the Republican Legislature on voucher schools. Unless they act, and soon, chaos may descend on the voucher program. Scores of schoolchildren may lose their seats; scores of others will be denied initial entry and scores of parents may not learn until very late whether their children can attend a voucher school.

For the children's sake, the politicians must end their long standoff and work out an agreement to lift or scuttle the program's statutory enrollment cap, set at 15% of the enrollment of the Milwaukee Public Schools, or at about 14,500 students. Right now the program is pressing against the cap. Hence, the Department of Public Instruction unveiled last week a plan to ration enrollment next school year.

The sketchy plan raises more questions than it answers. It doesn't address, for instance, how schools are to decide which students to accept. Right now, when the number of applicants exceeds a school's capacity, the school chooses new entrants by lottery. Will the same rule hold when a school reaches the limit of students rationed to it?

Rationing will hamper planning by schools, which won't learn until late how many voucher seats they have. This process will also inject uncertainty into their budgets.

The plan put forth by DPI would simply divide the cap by the number of voucher seats the schools have, all told, to come up with a percentage of seats each school can have in the program. For instance, if that arithmetic led to 80%, then each school could fill only 80% of its seats reserved for voucher students.

This could mean that schools will have an incentive to exaggerate their capacity. Schools that play it straight - likely the better schools - may be victimized by schools that don't and may get fewer than their fair share of students under the formula.

Also, the formula delays when students learn whether they are enrolled. Presumably, adjustments will continually be made among schools, as unfilled slots of one school may go to another - a process that could delay until September when some parents learn whether their children can attend.

The Legislature has been pushing to lift the cap. Gov. Jim Doyle has resisted. In November, Doyle proposed a compromise. He would back lifting the cap to 18% of MPS enrollment, if the Legislature would 1) require voucher schools to administer the same state tests public schools must administer and 2) raise the per-pupil amount public schools get from $2,000 to $2,500 for participating in a state program for reducing class sizes.

Republican leaders regard the latter proposal as having too steep of a price tag. Still, they should sit down with the governor and reach a meeting of minds. As for testing, the voucher program does need more academic accountability. So the governor's testing proposal is worth talking about. The best possible plan is a longitudinal study, which the Legislature passed and Doyle vetoed. He should reconsider. Such a study could entail voucher students' taking the state tests.

The governor and the Legislature are finally out of time to do right by children on this issue.


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