A ‘whiny’ argument against voucher testing

The question of how to hold private schools academically accountable for publicly supported, school voucher students remains contentious and, frankly, unclear. But to oppose tests out of fear the opposition will twist the results is simply untenable.

Bob Smith
Bob Smith

In one of the latest venues where this debate played out, at the American Federation For Children policy summit this week on the banks of the Potomac River, part of the audience broke into applause when Bob Smith, the former president of Messmer Catholic Schools in Milwaukee, pushed back on testing. Smith and Messmer schools are both highly regarded, and he was not coy about his rationale.

“We have some enemies who have sworn they are going to destroy this program, beginning with two presidents of the United States, and a number of secretaries of education,” Smith said. “Until those people stand up, and with the same fervor, deny that they will use that data against private schools, I will not trust them.”

At least two of the panels during the two-day event revealed the ongoing split over how, or even whether, to test students on school vouchers and tax credit scholarships.

Not surprisingly, Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice, made an eloquent and principled case for why the marketplace itself is a powerful force for assuring quality. Parents whose students are on scholarships, just like parents whose students are on private tuition, can and do walk away from schools that aren’t serving their needs – in some case putting schools out of business in the process.

Adam Emerson, director of parental choice for the Fordham Institute, made the principled case for why public is different. Public schools are under enormous pressure to produce results on state tests, with sometimes severe consequences for failure. To expect private schools serving publicly supported students to be immune from that system is unrealistic. It also denies elected policymakers who are paying the bill a test that they view as an important report card.

One slice of the divide that was hard to ignore was the contributions of the only current school administrator to serve on either panel.

Khawla Asmar, assistant principal for the Salam School in Milwaukee, told the audience that “accountability is important.” When asked whether she felt the testing and financial requirements in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which are among the toughest in the nation, hindered her educational mission, she replied: “Not really.”

Asmar’s words only served to reinforce a point made earlier this year by a Fordham report, titled “Red Tape or Red Herring,” that found that only a fourth of the 241 private schools it surveyed in 11 states ranked state-required testing as a “very” or “extremely” important factor in scholarship participation. In other words, the private schools themselves seem less averse to testing than those who speak in their defense.

As for the concern that opponents will twist the results, the same is true of the tests for traditional public schools and it comes off sounding as though people can’t be trusted with the truth.

Bill Jackson
Bill Jackson

Few people are better positioned to bring dispassionate observations to this issue than Bill Jackson, the founder and CEO of GreatSchools.org. His web site is the nation’s leading consumer guide to schools, and it exists to empower parents with as many facts as possible about every single school, public and private. Jackson also moderated one of the panels, and used his final remarks to succinctly rebut.

“I think that personally,” Jackson said, “to be really honest, this thing about how we can’t really be transparent with our data because people might use it against us is really whiny.”

And pretty darned defensive.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.