Do Jerry Bader Show listeners prove there is ‘tremendous support’ for vouchers?

This man is out to get me.
This man is out to get me.

I have gotten 28 emails from listeners to the Jerry Bader Show since he put me on blast Wednesday morning. Not a bad showing! And while they haven’t quite persuaded me that I was wrong, I do have a few thoughts about what this shows.

First, a little background:

On Tuesday I posted an excerpt of an editorial from Appleton that took a stridently anti-school-voucher stance and pointed to what I thought was a clear-cut successful “gotcha” from the piece. Gov. Scott Walker had told the Post-Crescent Media Editorial Board that he would not expand vouchers in the absence of “tremendous public support” in the cities where they would go.

That evidence doesn’t exist, I wrote. Point, Post-Crescent.

Bader, whose radio show airs in proposed voucher expansion cities Green Bay and Sheboygan as well as Wausau, which would not get vouchers, took issue with that on his radio show:

Robert, how do you know? How do you know there isn’t tremendous public support? Granted, there hasn’t been a referendum. … It would create a circus in Green Bay, in Sheboygan, any other school district that is looking at this. How do you know what the feelings are? How do you know how many people in Green Bay want this? How many people in Sheboygan?

Well, gee, I don’t know how many people in Green Bay want vouchers. But that is my whole point — there isn’t evidence of “tremendous public support,” which is the marker Walker himself set down. Bader’s argument to my claim that we don’t have evidence is essentially that there isn’t evidence.

Maybe Walker has changed his view and now believes in the policy so much that he thinks it’s justified anyway. Maybe he looks at the results in Milwaukee and thinks that even if there isn’t support for the change now, people will end up liking the policy. (There’s even some evidence to support that!) But on the narrow point, did Walker break a promise he made in December in that interview, I think there’s no reasonable way around answering that yes, the current proposal contradicts what he said then.

Bader proceeded to repeat my email address about 50 times and exhort his listeners in Green Bay and Sheboygan to write and tell me how much they support public school vouchers.

(This is an aside, but I am totally a fan of Bader as a broadcaster. I don’t listen to a lot of talk radio because I can’t handle waiting through all the commercials, but I am in low-grade awe of the way good practitioners of the form can elicit a response from their audience. Bader is very good, up to and including the way he went about giving out my address. He kept saying things like, “Should we do this? Can we do this?” to an off-air producer, giving listeners the idea that they were in on a practical joke or getting away with something by sending me feedback. Brilliant.)

And they responded! I don’t suppose that 30 or so emails automatically proves “tremendous support,” but it is not nothing, either. Here are a few excerpts from the emails I received:

I am a concerned parent that lives in the Green Bay School District and I am for the voucher program. I do believe in giving people a choice, where I live it seems everyone is trying to get their kids in Ashwaubenon, why. Right now my child is in a private 4K program and she is learning things that the public school choice I had would not give her. After this year I may not be able to afford a better education for my child and I will do everything possible to make sure she gets the best education possible and right now I have an option that may help me and that option is the voucher program.

***

Experiencing several years of public school teachers stuck in a school system because they could not be relieved of teaching. As well as teachers moved from High School level into elementary with no idea what they were doing. Students struggling and failing from teachers and principals that did not belong in the system, I turned to the parochial schools.

One year at a parochial school my son developed study habits, enjoyed school, grades improved but more important he achieved a confidence level that was stolen from him in the public school system. He completed 8th grade at the parochial school at my expense. My choice was to send him to Lutheran High school but financially this was out of my reach. The voucher program would have been the answer for me along with many other families. Loosing my job and still unable to find work I had to return to public schools.

***

Just want to register our support for school vouchers in the Green Bay/ De Pere school system. Having several grandchildren in public schools locally, one in public school and two in a parochial school, we have STRONG opinions about the contrast/cost/quality of teachers, etc. of the two systems. The popularity of the option of vouchers has, in our opinion, increased dramatically since the legislation minimizing the power of the teacher’s union. Competition is a good thing, always has been and if “choice” makes better outcomes for our children’s education both academically, socially, and as future citizens, where is the “down side”.

So a few conclusions: 1) Jerry Bader is a good broadcaster with some loyal listeners, 2) Being able to pay for private school is a specific middle-class anxiety and people respond to the idea that vouchers are a potential a solution for them, and 3) There is at the very least a dedicated core group of parents who see vouchers as a desirable reform.

I think it’s important to have empathy with what it must feel like to be a striving parent stuck in an underperforming school district without the ability to move or the money to send your kids to a better school. One way to look at voucher policy is to say that if it begins to address the concerns of these parents and doesn’t lead to worse educational outcomes, maybe the whole thing is worth it after all. I am not there, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable conclusion.

***

Bader also discussed the substance of my column on vouchers, and made the argument for evidence showing that the existence of vouchers has improved the quality of public schools. It’s a fair point, though I think the data is not quite as clear as Bader wants it to be. And for what it’s worth “vouchers will make public schools better” was definitely not the argument advanced to me by most of Bader’s listeners.

By the way, Bader and some of his listeners seem to want to cast me as a Diane Ravitch-style education reform opponent. They know nothing of my work! My view is that vouchers’ poor overall track record is a strong argument in favor of other reform policies like increased accountability for teachers, higher benchmarks for student achievement and more public charter schools. What I’m not persuaded by is the argument that expanding vouchers is the best way to improve schools, or even a particularly meaningful reform.

Here’s Bader:

You can take all the academic studies you want and say [subtly adopts nerd voice] “It’s not working.” Do you know what the measure is of what is working? A happy customer. Something that (Mentzer said), well, yeah, it counts for something. It counts for everything! If the customer’s happy, it’s working!

Well, not really. Call me old-fashioned but I would define “working” as “doing a better job of educating kids.” Isn’t that who we’re talking about?

Correction: My first version of this post misquoted Walker as saying “overwhelming” public support rather than “trememdendous” public support. Sorry about that. It’s been updated.

About Robert Mentzer

I am the opinion editor at Daily Herald Media.
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