How Do Bad Schools Survive?

Dr. Brenda Noach Choice School scored badly on last year's standardized tests — only 18% of the school's students were rated proficient in reading while zero percent were proficient in math. Yet this year they had an enrollment of 87 students and is in line to receive more than $500,000 in public support. Alan J. Borsuk at the Milwaukee/Wisconsin Journal Sentinel asks how this can happen.

Borsuk is a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University.

The philosophy of Milwaukee's program allowed just about anyone to open a school, and through vouchers every parent had the choice of where to send their children. And in theory this regulated the system – parents would make good choices, therefore quality would flourish.

But Borsuk shows this isn't always correct. As the Dr. Brenda Noach Choice enrollment numbers show, almost-unfettered parental choice alone doesn't adequately flush out the poor performers.

The state tried to account for this. Borsuk points to the various laws and regulations on finance and business operations, and many of the worst schools were flushed out by enforcement of those requirements.

"But there is still that group of voucher schools such as Brenda Noach that have navigated the current accountability system without much sign they are actually good schools. These schools have met the business and financial rules."

Plus, they are accredited – in the case of Brenda Noach, by the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools. And therefore, none of the regulatory steps has really put adequate heat on those schools to provide better education and get better results.

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, says that a new accountability system for all schools in the state, including public schools, will help with poor performing schools, including those like Brenda Noach.

When asked about some of the low-quality voucher schools, Bender responded, "You can't defend the indefensible."

He argued the system is working reasonably well overall, but said his organization wants to take a stronger role in building quality education.

That's good, says Borsuk.

"Given the choice between ideology and real results, it's high time to go for results – and for all that can be done to make them better. The children with the highest needs are the ones in the schools with the worst results. That's a huge reason why those schools have poor outcomes.

"But it's also a huge reason why it's way past time to drop the hands-off approach to quality."

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