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School choice has become the city’s most polarizing issue. Can avowed enemies ever find common ground? by Kurt Chandler

It was time to celebrate. The long-awaited ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court had declared Cleveland’s religious school voucher plan constitutional, giving Milwaukee the final legal endorsement of its own school choice program. So, to commem-orate the ruling and maybe win a few votes for the Republican Party, the president was coming to town.

At the request of the White House, George W. Bush would appear at Holy Redeemer Church of God in Christ, a North Side success story, home of two voucher schools and a forceful presence in a once-embattled neighborhood.

On that hot July morning, in a small auditorium, they gathered by invitation only: activists, practitioners, financiers, politicos, white suburban Republicans and black urban Democrats, a Who’s Who of Milwaukee’s school choice coalition – and a strange blend of bedfellows indeed. Standing near the stage was Howard Fuller, maybe the most recognizable spokesmen of the choice movement in the nation. In the president’s entourage was former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, godfather of the Milwaukee program. There was Mayor John Norquist, a vocal local booster. And there were The Three Scotts – Gov. McCallum, state Assembly Speaker Jensen and Milwaukee County Executive Walker. State Rep. Antonio Riley, a mayoral hopeful. Susan Mitchell, national strategist and director of two Milwaukee-based organizations. Congressmen and state representatives from both parties, pastors and principals from churches and schools across the city. And all the way from Arizona, Michael Joyce, former president of Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation, the money man who helped underwrite Milwaukee’s nascent choice movement and now a point man for Bush’s faith-based initiatives.

A young school girl delivered the opening prayer. An even younger boy recited the Pledge of Allegiance. A gospel singer sang an a cappella version of “America the Beautiful.” And the president commended all the “social entrepreneurs” in the house for their hard work.

It was a hallelujah moment, one the school choice movement had anticipated for years: the ultimate blessing by the nation’s highest court. Yet amid the thunderous applause and occasional cries of “Amen,” a hesitancy lingered. As Howard Fuller would say, “At best, you can only celebrate for a day. Then you’ve got to get ready again for the fight.”

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program began in the 1990-’91 school year as an experiment, with 341 students enrolled in seven private, nonsectarian schools. Borne out of a frustration with Milwaukee Public Schools and the lack of choices for many minority families in the city, the program provided state funds to low-income parents for private school tuition. Choice was expanded to include religious schools in 1998-’99, after passing three years of constitutional scrutiny. Today, it’s the oldest and largest of a handful of similar programs in the country, with parents receiving vouchers worth $5,783 for each student. This year, roughly 11,850 students will participate in the program at 104 schools, including nearly all of Milwaukee’s religious schools.

From the start, the program has been controversial and divisive, a hot-button issue hotter than abortion or gun control. Even the terminology can be contentious. To supporters, “school choice” offers a marketplace salvation from a public education system unresponsive to change, a system that for decades trapped children in schools that were inadequate and sometimes unsafe. To critics, “vouchers” are a diversion of funds and attention away from public schools, a devious plan to supplant public education with private education without a proper system of checks and balances to justify the spending of tax dollars, last year alone totaling nearly $33 million from state coffers.

The debate is aflame with us-vs.-them opinions – public vs. private education, conservatism vs. liberalism, the city vs. the suburbs, labor unions vs. private enterprise – fueled by some of the most incendiary issues of the day – from politics to religion to race to class to economics. No surprise, then, that school choice has become the most polarizing topic in the city.

And the battle, as Fuller says, rages on.

Three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision, voucher foes were already plotting their next move. Meeting at Milwaukee Area Technical College was the National Coalition of Educational Activists. In a well-attended workshop, these activists from around the country met to map out strategies against school choice programs.

The Cleveland decision will only push the opposition to step up its scrutiny, said Bob Peterson, an MPS teacher and editor of Rethinking Schools, the Milwaukee-based educational journal that co-sponsored the conference.

“Just because it’s been deemed legal doesn’t mean it’s good policy,” he insisted.

Minds are made up. Heels are dug in. The debate seems to be at a standoff, bogged down by years of political wrangling and hardheaded ideology.

“Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program has never been just itself,” says Bob Lowe, a history professor at Marquette University and co-founder of Rethinking Schools. “There’s not a singular voucher agenda out there.” Instead, there are multiple underlying agendas, each of them evolving, shifting.

Throughout, the voucher debate has been fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes. For instance, Milwaukee’s program is essentially an affirmative-action program yet it’s championed – and heavily funded – by conservatives, who normally are strong opponents of affirmative action. And despite the recent ruling on religion, choice is not welcomed by all sectarian schools; some don’t want to see their religious programs diluted by the program guidelines that allow choice students to opt out of religious activities.

By contrast, critics of vouchers – many on the left and aligned with the teachers’ unions – resist additional testing in public schools yet clamor for state-imposed testing requirements in voucher schools.

The line in the sand, however, may not be as deep as it appears. The choice program is part of the urban education landscape and, in its 13th school year, unlikely to disappear. Yet the Cleveland decision was far from a green light to expand the program, here or in other states. A month after the court’s ruling, a Florida judge struck down that state’s voucher law, putting its fledgling program on hold and setting up a protracted legal battle.

Challenges continue, limitations remain. With the legal issue of church and state seemingly settled in Wisconsin, both sides must now regroup, refocus. A peculiar lull exists in a debate that has become so rancorous it has ended friendships.

The rancor remains. Yet as the focus changes, maybe the divide over vouchers will give way to a middle ground.

 

The Great Divide

On a summer day, voucher opponent Bob Peterson sat at a patio table at Beans & Barley for an interview with Milwaukee Magazine. In his khaki shorts and sandals, the editor of Rethinking Schools talked about his days as a student activist in the ‘60s and his teaching career at Fratney Elementary, an MPS school in Riverwest.

Minutes later, school choice activist George Mitchell drove up in his Mercedes. Mitchell is Peterson’s nemesis – a one-time reporter for The Wall Street Journal turned policy wonk who’s been a vociferous critic of MPS since the 1980s. Married to Susan Mitchell, he takes a marketplace approach to education and has little tolerance for lefty “Riverwesters” like Peterson.

Unaware of Peterson’s presence, Mitchell stepped into the East Side restaurant and returned to the patio with a plate of lunch. Taking a seat nearby, he suddenly caught a glimpse of Peterson. They each muttered an obligatory greeting, and Mitchell picked up his lunch and moved to the opposite end of the patio.

The tension was palpable.

Driving the dispute over vouchers is the suspicion of each side’s political motives. Despite being hammered into law in 1989 by two black Democrats from Milwaukee (state Rep. Polly Williams and state Sen. Gary George) and a white Republican governor (Tommy Thompson), the issue is painted with a left-right palette. Typically in Wisconsin, Republicans support vouchers while Democrats oppose them, with the exception of the mayor and a handful of black Milwaukee Democrats, including Williams, George, Riley and Ald. Willie Hines.

Last spring, the Democrats infuriated school choice supporters when the state Senate threatened to gut the program during the start of state budget negotiations. With the backing of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield) introduced a provision to cut the voucher from a maximum $5,783 per child to $2,000 for elementary school students and $3,000 for high school students. Choice advocates descended upon the Capitol, and Decker eventually dropped the provision.

But weeks before the fall election, Fuller crisscrossed the state, warning voters from La Crosse to Green Bay to Sheboygan that cuts to Milwaukee’s choice program would add money to MPS but cost out-state school districts millions in state aid, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

On a statewide and national stage, vouchers are the bane of the teachers’ unions and African-American interest groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. Meanwhile, they’ve become the darling of the right, particularly conservative funding agencies and business groups. Right-leaning foundations such as Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Wal-Mart heir John Walton and his Walton Family Foundation, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation and others have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the school choice movement – for research, advertising, improvements to buildings, scholarships and, in some cases, ballot initiatives in other states.

“There’s nothing that is of a higher priority to us than this particular subject,” says Michael Grebe, president and chief executive officer of the Bradley Foundation and head of Wisconsin’s GOP from 1984 to 2002. “Conservatives have generally been opposed to the monopoly of public schools and the influence interest groups associated with them have had on the education of children.”

Voucher critics say there’s another force at work, a politically shrewd strategy that has little to do with the education of children. Their argument goes like this: Conservatives benefit from successful school choice programs because they want to push toward the privatization of publicly financed social services, including public education. Republicans benefit because they can sway opinions and win votes of urban minorities, specifically urban blacks, who traditionally make up a solid Democratic voting bloc. Conservatives also benefit because a private school system weakens the power of the teachers’ unions, a bastion of the left and huge Democratic campaign contributors. The Christian right benefits because it gets public tax dollars for Christian schools, principally Catholic schools, many of which had been failing financially before the choice movement came on the scene.

Teresa Thomas-Boyd, co-pastor of a Christian ministry in Milwaukee and a community organizer with Wisconsin Citizen Action, sees a hidden agenda in the funding by conservatives, a way to “divide and conquer” the black community – and the black vote – by buying the backing of low-income parents who are fed up with public schools.

“It’s a way to brainwash people for whatever comes next,” she says, whether it’s greater cuts in entitlement programs or greater restrictions on abortion.

An African American, Thomas-Boyd is wary of single-issue advocacy groups. The problems of the inner city go “way beyond choice,” she says, encompassing core issues such as housing, healthcare, safety and poverty.

The support of black churches, too, has become a way for the right to gain inroads, says Thomas-Boyd. She was “shocked” to see a newspaper photograph of Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, pastor of Holy Redeemer Church, hugging George W. Bush. Republicans, she says, have never been friends of social service programs, such as welfare, that benefit the urban poor.

The division over vouchers can become personal. Because of her blunt criticisms, “I have pastors who won’t talk to me,” she says.

Critics also say that as the school choice program has grown in Milwaukee, a “cottage industry” has sprung up that pays handsome dividends to professional activists. Take, as an example, the deep pockets of the Bradley Foundation. In the past two years, Bradley made grants of $1.5 million to Holy Redeemer Church, for instance. Likewise, Bradley gave Messmer Preparatory Catholic School $1.5 million in 2000 and 2001. Bradley grants of $440,000 went to Messmer High School in those same years. The school’s president, Brother Bob Smith, sits on Bradley’s board of directors. Bradley also gave $125,000 apiece to Urban Day School and Harambee Community School, both choice schools.

Bradley paid $108,200 to Mikel Holt, editor in chief of the Milwaukee African-American newspaper The Community Journal, and his publisher, the Institute for Contemporary Studies, for research, distribution and the release of Holt’s 2000 book on choice, Not Yet “Free at Last.” Bradley also awarded the Christian-based nonprofit scholarship organization, Parents Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), $4 million in 2001 and another $2.2 million the previous year for a building-improvement proj-ect and maintenance of its informational Web site of Milwaukee schools. Bradley has contributed millions to PAVE’s scholarship program since its origin in 1992. (PAVE’s director, Dan McKinley, earned a salary of $105,000 in 2000.)

Howard Fuller, one of the early conceptualists of the Milwaukee choice program and superintendent of MPS from 1991 to 1995, now runs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, a research and advocacy program he began that’s now a separate department within Marquette University. The institute received $961,625 from Bradley over the past two years. Another Fuller creation, the newfound Black Alliance for Educational Options, got $500,000 in Bradley grants last year. It has since grown to 29 chapters nationally, with nearly 1,000 members.

Susan Mitchell, a self-professed “school choice junkie” who at one time consulted for Fuller, now heads the American Education Reform Council and the American Education Reform Foundation, nonprofit groups that have been based in Milwaukee since 1998. The foundation has raised money for school choice ballot initiatives in Michigan and Colorado. (Both initiatives were defeated.) Mitchell also helped fund school choice ad campaigns in Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania. The board of directors of her groups includes Fuller, John Walton, Minnesota’s former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and Bill Oberndorf, a San Francisco businessman with close ties to the conservative Olin and Heritage foundations.

Mitchell’s two groups received $850,000 in Bradley money over the past two years. She was paid $160,590 in 2000 to head the organizations. Husband George runs a private consulting company that has worked with Fuller’s institute and has raised money and won endorsements in Wisconsin for political candidates who favor vouchers.

By comparison, the Bradley Foundation gave a total of $100,000 to the Milwaukee Public Schools last year for a fifth-grade mentoring program.

The privately funded network makes Milwaukee School Board member Jennifer Morales uneasy. “I wonder about the wisdom of a democratic society funding two competing systems of education,” says Morales, who is among a 4-5 minority of board members that opposes vouchers. “The role of public education is to create a productive, knowledgeable, critical-thinking society.” Dividing the system into competing factions is done at the detriment of the larger society.

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“We are not a marketplace,” Morales says of public education. “An education is not like buying bread. We are an essential societal good. And that essential societal good should be a given.… I wouldn’t want to see every child in Milwaukee subject to the whims of the market.”

State Rep. Williams has been an outspoken critic of her own program, so outspoken that she’s gone from school choice poster girl, courted by the national media and Washington politicians, to a pariah. Though she still supports choice, “I don’t like what’s happening,” says Williams. “But when I get to talking, I’m like a bad penny.… I come across as a has-been or an appendage to somebody.”

She’s disappointed with conservatives and progressives alike for politicizing the issue. The teachers’ unions’ stronghold on MPS contributed to the district’s decline by placing its membership above the needs of students, says Williams. “They got caught,” she says, “and another movement took over due to benign neglect.”

White Republicans or white Democrats – “What’s the difference?” she asks. “It’s just changing the slave masters. But now you have a whole new industry out there. And that was not our intent. All that money did was to give a lot of white people jobs. It’s not trickling down to parents who need it. Look at the people employed in these places.… They’re running agencies that impact our children’s lives… while using the black community as a bridge to win elections and shape policy.”

Susan Mitchell acknowledges that the money flows to the choice movement from the right. But she insists that the goal is not to shut down public schools or divide public opinion.

“What binds people together in the coalition now is a goal of expanding educational options,” she says. “This is a coalition that genuinely crosses socio-economic lines, political lines, religious lines. If we all got together in some room on some other issue, it would blow up. That’s why it works.”

This summer, Mitchell helped form the Alliance for Choices in Education, led by Fuller, representatives from choice and charter schools, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Lutheran College and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), a longtime voucher supporter. To “preserve the choices available to parents,” the coalition will mobilize members for letter-writing campaigns, public hearings and rallies at the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, across the hall in their East Side office, George Mitchell focuses on unseating policymakers who threaten Milwaukee’s program. Early in the year, Mitchell and the choice coalition backed Barbara Horton for a Milwaukee School Board seat and Walker for the county executive job, raising money and gathering endorsements from black ministers, among others. This summer, he formed a state-registered conduit, the Fund for Choices in Education, to help direct contributions to political candidates running against choice foes. His top goal was to wrestle the Democrat-controlled state Senate away from Chvala.

Mitchell scoffs at “conspiracy theorists” who say the Christian right is pulling the strings of the school choice movement. The coalition, he says, is made up of people of many religions and many races whose prevailing goal has always been to expand education choices for parents.

The Milwaukee voucher program was “homegrown,” seeded by the Bradley Foundation. If the national teachers’ unions weren’t funding counter-voucher campaigns, “we’d be going like gangbusters,” he says. “But I’ll be long gone before it gets to be where I think it ought to go.”

Nor does Mitchell make apologies for the salaries he and his wife make as fund-raisers and activists. He won’t discuss his salary but says he worked for free on voucher issues for years. “The idea that I might be getting value for the services I provide today… well, of course. That’s what people do.”

The Mitchells, like other activists, have taken heat for being “white interlopers” – for living outside of the city while profiting on the city’s school choice program. But as they explain, they moved to the North Shore instead of Milwaukee in the mid-1980s because of the shortcomings of MPS when searching for a school for their two adopted daughters, one biracial, the other Asian. The girls likely would have gone to separate schools under MPS’ busing policy, they say, so they moved to Shorewood. They now live in Whitefish Bay.

Drawing perhaps more criticism than anyone else in the voucher movement is Fuller, partly because of his visibility, partly because of his race and partly because of his background. Before he led MPS, Fuller headed Milwaukee County’s Division of Health and Human Services, was dean of MATC’s general education department and once advocated for the formation of an independent Milwaukee school district for black students. Decades ago, he espoused Marxist theory, started his own all-black Malcolm X Liberation University and spent a month with black freedom fighters in Mozambique.

Today, as a single-issue activist, he aligns himself with white conservative capitalists, people like John Walton and Michael Joyce, former head of the Bradley Foundation.

As much as any question about school choice, Fuller is condemned for his link to the Bradley Foundation, which funded an endowed position at the American Enterprise Institute for Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve. Written by Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the book was criticized for promoting the argument that blacks’ IQ deficiencies, and not racism, are responsible for their disproportionate rates of poverty and incarceration.

Fuller, a distinguished professor of education at Marquette, bristles when discussing the book. “To me, The Bell Curve is a racist piece of trash,” he says. “I take great pride in trying to use dollars from the Bradley Foundation to disprove what The Bell Curve had to say. And if you want to extend this out, should we not accept money from the government because the government at one point in time sponsored the Tuskegee experiment? Where does this stop? Where do you draw the line?

“The second part of this is we’re in a battle. If I follow what some of my opponents say – ‘Don’t take money from these people’ – well, where am I gonna get resources to fight? You can’t fight out here with nothing. What I’ve said, and I’ll say it over and over again, is: The Bradley Foundation has never once called me and said, ‘You’ve got to do X.’ They either give you the money or they don’t give you the money.”

Fuller declines to talk about his salary, saying he values his privacy now that he no longer works in the public sector. He points out that he does not draw salary from his nonprofit, the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

“Michael Joyce has a view of the world and I’ve got a view of the world,” says Fuller. “Michael Joyce and I don’t have discussions about broad issues in the world because we have differences.

“I’m still, like, ‘power to the people,’ ” Fuller adds. “My argument is, tell me why you would not want to empower low-income parents to have control over dollars. Tell me why that’s a bad thing. And what I’ve concluded, right or wrong, is that a lot of people who at one point in time were struggling against the bureaucracy, they now are the bureaucracy. What many of my so-called progressive friends have adopted is a stance that puts the institution ahead of the people.… Where is the left’s critique of bureaucratic control over people’s lives? What are the implications of less than 30 percent of the black children who start out in the 9th grade completing school? Forget choice for a minute, let’s just talk about children and what as a community we’re going to do to address this issue.”

 

Common Ground?

The intransigence on both sides clouds the view of the program’s impact. One side, for example, sees the increase of white students in the program as a positive sign that choice schools are becoming more integrated than MPS. The other side, meanwhile, sees the increase as a sign that religious schools (particularly Catholic schools) are taking unfair advantage of the voucher program as a handy scholarship and a marketing tool to attract low-income kids (mostly white) who’ve never seen the inside of an inner city public school.

Yet there are a couple of areas where a common view seems possible, even probable: the effect school choice has had on MPS and the call for more information on what’s going on inside the schools.

Last January, Milwaukee School Board member John Gardner published a report through Susan Mitchell’s American Education Reform Council, which also assisted in research. The report showed that competition by the voucher program caused improvements within MPS. According to Gardner:

• MPS teachers – once assigned based on seniority – are now hired by a selection committee at each school.

• Programs managed jointly by MPS and the teachers’ union make it easier to fire, demote or force the resignations of substandard teachers and principals.

• Four-year-old kindergartens are full-day programs, offered now at most schools.

• Because dollars follow students to the schools they attend, MPS schools actively promote themselves and recruit students to meet budgets, making them more responsive to neighborhoods and more attentive to students.

Gardner is hardly a conservative. He leans to the left on most issues, including the support of abortion rights, gun control and national health insurance. Nor is he gung-ho on a free-market system for education. Yet he’s convinced that choice schools have made a direct impact on MPS, even schools statewide. He counts the push to keep class sizes small under Wisconsin’s SAGE program as “very directly linked” to the competitive pressure of Milwaukee’s parental choice program.

“MPS has gotten as good or better than most religious schools in this city,” he says. “Everything choice schools have been able to do that has proven to be an advantage to recruiting and enrolling students, MPS has done in aggregate and better.”

Choice proponents hold up other studies on the influence of competition, including a study by Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby. In a 2001 report, Hoxby concluded that “regular public schools boosted their productivity when exposed to competition” by choice schools in Milwaukee as well as charter schools in Michigan and Arizona.

Voucher critics brush off the studies, calling Gardner’s report biased and lacking in independent research. Four-year-old kindergarten? MPS already had been heading in that direction, argue the critics, partly because the state’s W-2 plan pushed more low-income parents into the workforce, which drove up the need for more early-childhood education programs. Likewise, the hiring process had been evolving beyond seniority assignments without any prodding of the voucher program.

Yes, says Rethinking Schools Editor Peterson, the teachers’ union has become more responsive to complaints of substandard teachers. “But competition as a mode of improvement in general is quite overrated,” he says. As a teacher at MPS’ Fratney Elementary, “I’m motivated, and so are my colleagues, because we want to do a good job of teaching kids.” It’s “rather insulting,” he says, to think that he should be driven by what “the school down the street” is doing.

Others in public education, though, have accepted, if not embraced, at least the spirit of competition. Former MPS Superintendent Spence Korte has acknowledged that vouchers keep public schools on their toes. And state Rep. Christine Sinicki, a Bay View Democrat and voucher critic who sat on the Milwaukee School Board from 1991-’98, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last winter she agreed with Gardner’s conclusions.

“It killed me to say that but, yeah, it did cause MPS to improve,” says Sinicki. “From the start, I saw vouchers as a threat to MPS. That threat really did force MPS to move forward with some reforms.”

Marquette professor Lowe says he believes the voucher program “motivated certain constituencies in MPS to take the education of students perhaps more seriously than before.” He cites the changes in hiring policies as an example.

Married to the principal of MPS’ Hartford University School, Lowe is a longtime friend and colleague of Fuller, and their relationship has survived their differences of opinion. While Lowe is critical of most aspects of Milwaukee’s voucher plan, he says he would not want to see it dismantled.

“You just can’t count on having students in your school – you need to satisfy parents,” he says. “I just think that people [in MPS] are really stretching to make sure that they’re doing better.”

Still unanswered, though, is the question of how well the voucher schools are doing, a question that also is prime for finding common ground. Anecdotes abound of children who have thrived after transferring out of MPS and into a choice school. And reports turned out by the likes of Fuller and George Mitchell shore up arguments in favor of the program. One 1999 report, for instance, found that vouchers have little negative fiscal effects on MPS, a claim bolstered by the independent and nonpartisan Public Policy Forum.

Indeed, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has made an impact beyond the classroom – spurring partnerships between MPS, private schools and local businesses and contributing to central city renewal projects, such as the new building for St. Marcus Lutheran School on Brewers Hill.

But less evident is whether students in choice schools are faring better or worse than students in public schools. What academic value does the school choice program bring? Because voucher schools are required to report only minimal data to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), few conclusions can be drawn.

“The academic achievement of Choice pupils has been [an] area of concern,” concluded the state Legislative Audit Bureau in a February 2000 report. “Of the 84 schools that responded to our survey question about standardized testing, 68 reported administering some type of standardized test in 1998-’99. However, not all schools administer the same tests, so their scores cannot be compared or used to compare the performance of MPS and choice schools. Previous evaluations of the choice program… have resulted in mixed findings.…”

Perhaps the biggest debate on voucher schools is the question of accountability. Under Wisconsin law, private choice schools are exempt from providing services for students with disabilities; hiring certified teachers; conducting criminal background checks on teachers and staff; conducting performance tests; reporting test scores, attendance records, dropout rates and expulsion/suspension figures; and abiding by Wisconsin’s open records and open meeting laws.

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School choice supporters worry that too many requirements will undermine the very freedoms of private schools, stifling innovation and competition. It has been the encumbrance of standards and regulations that have created a paralyzing bureaucracy within the public school system.

But critics want proof that the quality of education and level of service in choice schools is at least commensurate with public schools. Show us some numbers, they say. How does a program that has been in place for 12 years and has cost, according to DPI, $201.5 million in tax dollars justify its existence? And more importantly, do parents who are considering a choice school know what they’re getting?

“There are some good voucher schools, I’m not going to deny that,” says Barbara Miner, former managing editor at Rethinking Schools and the wife of Peterson. “There are also some real lousy voucher schools.” Voucher schools, she says, do not offer enough information for parents to make informed choices.

There have been attempts to supply more information. In December 2000, Fuller sent a letter to then Gov. Thompson outlining a proposal for a longitudinal study of Milwaukee’s choice program. Fuller suggested evaluating the program’s impact on children scheduled to enter first grade and then follow them over 12 years, releasing results each year. He recommended that the Legislative Audit Bureau conduct the study.

Among a list of factors to be studied, Fuller included:

• The impact on academic achievement, using such measures as standardized test scores, attendance and high school graduation.

• A comparison to an MPS control group.

• Parents’ satisfaction.

• The financial impact on MPS, the voucher program and other Wisconsin school districts.

• The impact on racial and ethnic compositions and on choice students with special needs.

Fuller’s proposal was endorsed by Norquist, the MMAC’s Tim Sheehy, Susan Mitchell, the Catholic archdiocese, the Evangelical Lutheran synod and two members of the city’s School Board, among others.

Most voucher opponents didn’t buy it, however, claiming the proposal fell short. It would be voluntary and would not release school-by-school data, they said, allowing choice schools to dodge evaluation. When Thompson introduced the proposal in his budget, the Senate shot it down.

Fuller’s proposal lacks widespread support even within the school choice coalition, but it remains on the table and offers at least some movement toward a system of accountability. In August, Fuller discussed such a study with Elizabeth Burmaster, state superintendent of public instruction.

State Rep. Sinicki will introduce her own proposal to provide an evaluation of Milwaukee’s choice program in the next legislative session. “And if I could get that, I would probably leave it alone for awhile,” she says. “Choice is not going to go away. I think it’s here and we have to deal with it.… What we have to do is make sure it’s working.”

An evaluation would give something to both sides. An audit of all schools would help weed out the good from the bad. Choice advocates could use independently gathered facts and figures to market their program.

“Vouchers are not an experiment anymore – we’re way beyond that,” says Emily Van Dunk, a senior researcher with the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee, who’s been studying vouchers since 1996. “The size of Milwaukee’s parental choice program makes it one of the top 10 school districts in state. But we can and should have a robust criticism of the program. That doesn’t mean you get rid of it. You tweak it.”

If the goal of the program is strictly to give parents more choices, it has succeeded, says Van Dunk. “But if the program is supposed to be about improving education, we don’t have that. You can’t measure improvement without more information. And without good information, we’re only replicating the mediocrity that we’re supposed to be replacing in the first place.”

 

The Future of Vouchers

Cleve Belfield is director of research for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, a nonpartisan think tank at Columbia University’s Teachers College. A professor of economics and education, Belfield describes his job as that of a filter between academic research and mainstream opinions on issues such as vouchers.

Belfield doesn’t paint a rosy picture for voucher programs in the United States. Despite last summer’s Supreme Court decision, only about one-third of all 50 states have a “permissive orientation” toward voucher programs, he says, based on state laws, public opinion and current political trends.

“You could make a reasonably convincing case for them, but they only apply to a small percentage of students,” he says. “Lots of people are perfectly happy with public schooling.”

As for Milwaukee’s program, it continues to be a model for other cities – and a quagmire of disagreement. Belfield offers a few predictions about where the program is headed.

Vouchers will not expand outside the city. Suburban parents in general are quite satisfied with the quality – and funding levels – of their schools.

In Milwaukee, the program will not expand beyond its current size. By law, no more than 15 percent of the MPS membership (about 15,000 students) can participate in the choice program. A study several years ago by Fuller, Mitchell and Sammus White of UW-Milwaukee showed that 70,000 Milwaukee families meet the requirements for the program, many of them black families. Yet with other school options now available, including charter schools and innovative MPS schools, the demand has not yet risen to the level of the rhetoric. Enrollment for the 2002-’03 year remains under 12,000.

Milwaukee’s school choice coalition will remain on the defensive in its attempt to preserve the program. The teachers’ union won’t give an inch in protecting its constit-uents – MPS teachers – who for years have been the whipping post for politicians and the press. And in the political realm, the program will continue to be a bargaining chip in the state Legislature and a campaign issue in the Milwaukee School Board races.

Often the political debate itself overshadows the discussion of the merits.

Voucher critics get a lot of mileage out of the claim that conservatives have co-opted the Milwaukee experiment. But it’s not that black and white. Even in Wisconsin, there are Democrats supporting the program – from Antonio Riley to Gary George to John Norquist – who see its merits as competition to MPS and as a highly effective urban renewal tool.

In the end, the debate becomes a moral question: How can opponents dismiss vouchers while urban families feel trapped in public schools that they see as threatening to their children’s education, even their safety? How can we ask them to sit tight and wait for improvements to come to public schools?

Likewise, how can choice advocates rely so heavily on the market as a cure-all? Yes, parents have a choice, in private and public schools. There are many options now, likely as a result of competition. But how can parents objectively weigh those options if they don’t have all the information about how well choice schools are performing?

Barbara Horton bridges the divide between public education and school choice. In some ways, she’s a contradiction in the voucher debate. Horton once served as former deputy superintendent and acting superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools. She now runs the Darrell L. Hines College Preparatory Academy, a former choice school that became a city charter school this year. Horton won a seat on the Milwaukee School Board in April following an acrimonious challenge by an anti-voucher opponent.

The often-bitter conflicts, she says, are “adult issues” – unions protecting teachers, activists protecting their turfs, schools protecting their budgets, politicians protecting their self-interests. “It demonstrates how entrenched some of these groups are, holding onto power and money,” she says.

An MPS graduate, Horton sends her own children to public schools while reporting to work each day at a private institution.

“I’m not going to be put in a box and say you should only be concerned about students within the [MPS] district,” she says. “We’ve got a whole city of children that we need to be concerned about. We need to put children first and put pride aside.”


 

Cashing In

How a loophole is padding the pockets of choice schools.

The biggest complaint of the state-funded school choice program is that it lacks public accountability and puts MPS at an unfair disadvantage.

Illustrating both points was the dilemma last school year at Sherman Elementary, a public school at 51st and Locust streets, located within a cluster of choice and charter schools.

As required by law for all schools in the state, Sherman completed its first of two yearly head counts on the third Friday in September. These head counts are used to determine budgets for public schools and cash payouts to choice and charter schools.

Shortly after the September head count, Sherman was flooded with new students – many of them “special needs” students – released from nearby choice and charter schools that apparently couldn’t meet their needs. (Charter schools are required by law to accept special needs students; choice schools are not.)

Between 50 and 75 students were transferred to Sherman after the count, says Sherman’s former principal, Erma Cannon, who took early retirement partly because of the situation.

“It was overwhelming,” says Cannon. “It almost seemed as if Sherman was becoming a receiving school for children with difficulties” – children with learning disabilities, physical handicaps and behavioral problems.

Equally disturbing is that choice schools are still paid for these students. Though many of the transfer students were in class for only one month, the choice schools received half the total voucher payments (the total last year was $5,326 per student) and are not required to return the money. A little-known loophole allows them to pocket thousands of dollars for students they did not educate – and, as critics charge, did not want.

Administered by the state Department of Public Instruction, the payment schedule works like this: Each choice school receives four state aid payments during the year for its voucher students. The first payment, mailed by DPI on September 30, is based on a list of students who had applied to the school by September 1. (Students, however, can apply to more than one choice school at a time.) For example, for 100 applicants, a school this year would receive a check for one-fourth of the voucher amount, or $1,445.75 apiece, for a total of $144,575.

The second payment (sent on November 29) is based on each school’s all-important September head count – whether the students stay in the school or not. Early September is a heavy recruitment period for choice and charter schools eager to win transfer students and bump up enrollment by that third Friday of the month.

Another head count is made on the second Friday in January and payments sent on February 28 and May 30, 2003, based on the January head count.

While each school must submit an independent audit at the end of the year to substantiate per-pupil costs, the complicated schedule opens the door to costly boondoggles. If, for example, each of the 104 voucher schools transferred just one student following the late-September head count (two voucher payments of $2,891.50 times 104), taxpayers would shell out $300,716 educating students no longer enrolled in the schools.

Compounding the problem are the costs to public schools. Unlike choice schools, student head counts in public schools are used to calculate budgets for the following year. So Sherman Elementary received no additional dollars for teachers or staff to accommodate the influx of students, particularly students with special needs.

The flood of special education students strained the resources of Sherman School. Staff and teachers worked through lunch hours and into the evenings on their own time to process the new enrollments and evaluate the transferred students.

From September 2001 to April 2002, says Cannon, 189 children were transferred to Sherman, chiefly from choice and charter schools.

“When they can’t deal with them academically or because of behavior, they send them back to us,” says Cannon. “Where’s their accountability?”

One new student destroyed a classroom in a temper tantrum, says Cannon. Another, a 10-year-old boy, pulled a razor blade on a teacher. Of the new students, at least 30 were on some type of medication for treatment ranging from behavioral disorders to asthma.

Parents told Cannon they were either unaware of their child’s special needs or unclear about the capabilities of the choice and charter schools. Some said they were dissatisfied with the private school.

Principals at other MPS schools said they, too, were getting special needs student from private schools, though not as many as Sherman.

“Kids are not being provided for at choice schools,” says Yvonne Hopgood, principal at Ralph H. Metcalfe School, who saw several students “counseled out” by nearby choice schools.

According to an MPS official, new Superintendent William Andrekopoulos will order each school to track incoming students and code those who come from choice and charter schools.

“If [private schools] take the children, they should keep them and come up with a program, just as we have to,” says Cannon. “I have nothing against parents choosing schools for their children, but there has to be something to ensure that we don’t become overloaded with children who have problems.”

 


 

Choice or Charter? Some of the differences:

Charter Schools
• Managed under “charter” with public entity – e.g., MPS, the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

• Not religious.

• Do not charge tuition.

• Not limited to taking low-income students.

• Funded by the state ($6,951 per student).

• Must accept special needs students.

• Teachers must be licensed by state.

• Must participate in state’s assessment system.

 

Choice or Voucher Schools
• Privately owned and operated.

• Religious or non-religious.

• Must allow students to “opt out” of religious instruction.

• Funded by state vouchers ($5,783 per student).

• Family income of students must not exceed 175 percent of federal poverty level.

• May also charge tuition.

• Not required to take special needs students.

• Teachers are not required to be state-certified.

• Exempt from state’s assessment system.

 

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