3.12.2005

Blogging the Future Wisconsin Conference, pt 5
Edumacation

The setup: moderator Bishop Sedgrick Daniels couldn't make it, so there is no moderator for this one; panelists Susan Mitchell, Representative Leah Vukmir, Dr. Howard Fuller, and Camille Soldberg.

Representative Vukmire goes first. "The teachers union fighting us at every turn" makes things tough, she says, and talks about her daughter. When she was learning to read, the program wasn't working, but teachers refused to allow their methods to be questioned. She says Wisconsin is a national model for education nationally, and that the teachers union is trying to sabotage that.

She tells us the things we need to keep: objective academic standards, options for parents, and "proven methods" - teaching phonics, not teaching "fuzzy math", etc. She'd like to use voucher programs for special education under a McCay (not sure of the spelling) program. Apparently Florida has it, and Ohio is moving towards it.

Camille Soldberg is up next. She is talking about Latino education - especially English training. I think I hear a very slight Hispanic accent in her voice - it has a very pleasant lilt to it, which makes her fun to listen to. She talks about the relationship between poverty (even though she's quick to point out that they're making better money than where they came from) and education. The second and third generations are where much of the progress is seen, which makes sense. She also talks about teaching patience and self control, and acclimating immigrants into our culture.

Now to Susan Mitchell. She's the President of the School Choice program of Wisconsin, and focuses on results in Milwaukee. She agrees that Milwaukee is a national testing ground for school programs. She says there are 4 entities that can charter schools in Milwaukee, and there are 36 charter schools there now. She likes the "vigorous marketplace".

So, the results: student achievement has increased in charter schools over the public school system. Graduation rates over the last 15 years are twice as high at half the cost. Secondly, improvement in Milwaukee Public Schools - public schools are competing for the children. Finally, the community and neighborhoods have seen an influx of "mission-driven" organizations - churches and charities - because of the inflow of money created by charter schools. There are even places where public and private schools are teaming up to create a better community.

Finally is Dr Fuller. He likens himself to the "Johnny Appleseed" of school choice. He certainly doesn't look the part - although perhaps it's just the blazer - but I like the tag. He says, "This will be the breakout year for school choice." So far more than 30 states have bills for school choice, and he's agitating in the 10 states that he thinks are the most likely to win them. Even Wisconsin is pushing for laws that would say that if a child fails to learn to read for 2 years in a row, they'll be given a voucher for private schools. Lessons? "Markets work," he says. He has a great story of a neighborhood in Milwaukee. Years ago there was a bad shooting - now, because of the voucher system, there are schools on three of the four corners, and the neighborhood is thriving.

The other lesson is that people can thrive when you give them choice. He ends up hitting on the meme of liberal racism - here, that Blacks can't perform well no matter what programs they have. It hasn't worked out that way.

Finally, he is amazed that the media continues to present this as a purely conservative idea. "The most powerful arguments in favor of school choice are matters of civil justice." Why don't liberals latch on to the idea that we are giving all students the same access to good education?

Now for questions. The first two are about creationism, and it makes me wonder how much of the debate has already been resolved by the scientific community. As one questioner pointed out, it's very difficult to even find a textbook that mentions creationism.