Thursday, May 22, 2008

The hidden costs of education reform

Here at the Forum we have long bemoaned the lack of data with which to measure the success of Milwaukee's various education reform efforts. From the 32-year-old Chapter 220 integration program to the 10-year-old open enrollment program (not to mention the 18-year-old private school choice program), our policymakers have become expert at funding reform programs long-term without measuring their effectiveness at improving student achievement.

It turns out we're not alone. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district's pre-K Bright Beginnings program, which later became a model for a similar statewide program, was passed with the promise of better middle and high school outcomes. However, the inaugural class of Bright Beginnings preschoolers is now part of the high school freshman class and the district cannot say whether they are doing better than their peers who did not attend preschool.

It is not enough just to measure outcomes in the initial years of a program, as they did in Charlotte with Bright Beginnings and we did here in Wisconsin with the school choice program. For as long as taxpayers are providing the funds, data should be collected and evaluated. The costs of collecting, storing, and analyzing the data should be factored into the costs of operating the program.

It is possible to get it right. Charter schools in Wisconsin have always provided taxpayers and policymakers with the same achievement and accountability data as public schools. Researchers from within or outside government can evaluate the data and judge the schools' effectiveness, monitoring their progress over time and comparing them to other schools.

When the need for long-term data is ignored, proponents of reform efforts undermine their own arguments about the need for the reform. The lack of data could result in lackluster programs draining limited funds from other needed efforts or successful programs dying from lack of proof. Either way, taxpayer money is wasted and education reform gets a bad rap.

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