The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel should be the national paper of record for school choice reporting.
After all, the modern school choice movement — launched three decades ago in Milwaukee — has spread in various forms throughout the nation. So just as the paper’s Dan Egan sets a high journalistic bar for writing on the Great Lakes, the Journal Sentinel education reporters are logical candidates to chronicle the evolution and spread of private school choice programs and their cousin, public charter schools.
Vouchers and charters are back in the news now that Governor Tony Evers has proposed a crippling freeze on enrollment. The time clearly is ripe for objective coverage of how the programs have worked, not only in Wisconsin but elsewhere in the nation. This is particularly so in light of a growing body of credible scholarly research, summarized below.
Consider also the timely and highly significant news late last year from, of all places, the Department of Public Instruction under the stewardship of then-Superintendent Evers. As Will Flanders of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has reported here, current school district report cards issued by Evers’ DPI rank Milwaukee charter and private voucher schools higher than MPS. While readers of RightWisconsin and UrbanMilwaukee.com learned of this important development, I can’t find mention of it in the Journal Sentinel. (Perhaps I missed a buried line about what should have been page one news.)
By conventional journalistic standards, the paper’s reporting of the Evers proposal would provide readers with context that includes the report card rankings. The Journal Sentinel and other media likewise would report that the higher rankings come despite much lower financial support for private voucher and public charter students. The paper also would call attention to the higher scores of voucher students on the ACT college readiness test. Further, it would tell readers of research by the University of Wisconsin’s John Witte and others that finds voucher students have higher graduation rates and post-secondary attendance records.
None of those things are in dispute. They are not what “voucher advocates claim” to be the case. They are documented facts.
In light of that, consider this recent paragraph from Journal Sentinel columnist and longtime education reporter Alan Borsuk:
The tangible impact of vouchers and charters is complex to assess. They are certainly popular when it comes to enrollment. Some excellent schools exist as a result of the programs. But has the overall picture of student achievement for children in low-income communities changed? Not really. The number of students is too small to justify saying that and, to say the least, not all private and charter schools are getting such terrific results.
The first sentence is the tell. It signals that Borsuk will follow the longstanding practice of Journal Sentinel education reporters and skate by the growing evidence of better relative performance, at much lower cost, on the part of choice and charter schools. Instead, readers learn only that “some excellent [voucher and charter] schools exist” and “not all…are getting such terrific results.”
The paper’s dismissal of key information involving a program pioneered in Milwaukee is journalistic malfeasance. The error is magnified by the accumulated evidence nationally that is predominantly positive as to the impact of programs that expand parent education options. Once again, this is not what “voucher advocates say.” Rather, it reflects research findings from credentialed scholars held in wide regard.
As the school choice debate in Madison proceeds, the Journal Sentinel, and the Wisconsin media in general, have a clear choice. They can report objectively on the documented, undisputed facts or they can slide past the available evidence and fall back on tired, misleading claims about “mixed” or “inconclusive” results.
Notwithstanding the effective blackout to date, the advent of social media means there is growing awareness among elected officials about the actual facts. It highlights the evolving world of how information is shared. While the mainstream media has failed on this issue, the impact of its failure is lessened by the ability of other voices to be heard.