You are here


Choice is Good

In Milwaukee, school choice isn't about public vs. private. It's about success vs. failure.

Anthony Johnson is a senior on academic scholarship at Milwaukee's competitive Messmer Catholic High School. Anthony is a good student, but he might not have made it to Messmer without the Parental Choice Program, an initiative that allows low-income families to use state education funds to send their children to private schools within the city.

Milwaukee is one of the few places in the country where the educational playing field has been at least partially leveled by a variety of choice programs: a thriving charter school program; the parental choice program; and open enrollment, a statewide program that allows students to transfer to other public schools within the city.

When unemployed, Anthony's mother, Valerie, relied on the choice program to send him to St. Stephen the Martyr, a Catholic grammar school where she says he benefited from a smaller, family atmosphere and individualized attention. "A lot of parents say, 'Finally, we can get a quality education for our children,' " she says of the program. "They feel like their kids have an opportunity to make it, that they will go off to college and achieve their dreams. I don't think my kids deserve any less because I don't make a lot of money."

It's easy to find parents like Johnson to sing the choice program's praises. But from the beginning, it faced tough opposition from the teachers' union and other groups, plus a series of protracted court battles. The fiercest legal wrangling ended in 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program's expansion to allow up to 15,000 vouchers and to include religious schools among the options available to low-income families. Despite the obstacles, the program has grown steadily, from 300 students in seven private schools in 1990 to an estimated 11,420 students in 107 private schools this year.

In most other places, school choice programs rarely make it off the ground. Voucher programs in varying forms and degrees exist in Florida, Maine, Vermont and Cleveland, Ohio, but similar initiatives, in the form of legislation or ballot initiatives, have been trounced in at least nine states, including Arizona, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas. How then has the Milwaukee program succeeded? The answer lies in what Susan Mitchell, president of the Milwaukee-based American Education Reform Council, calls a "coalition of strange bedfellows"--politicians, business people, community activists and private foundations. Following is a closer look at how Milwaukee's school choice program works.

Open-minded Superintendents

Among the earliest supporters of school choice was Howard Fuller, Milwaukee's superintendent of schools from 1991 to 1995. Today, Fuller is the founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

Subsequent superintendents, though less fervent in their support, have been open-minded about school choice, according to Mitchell. Current superintendent William Andrekopolous says the choice program has made the district more aware of market economy and the need to respond to parent demands. "The more students we enroll, the more resources we receive from the state," he says. The district's goal is to remain as attractive as possible to Milwaukee parents, and Andrekopolous says he believes they are succeeding; he notes that 18 percent of Milwaukee children attend private schools, a percentage that is much higher in other urban school districts.

Andrekopolous says the availability of alternatives has had some positive effects on the 105,000-student public school system. "We have more cooperation from the union in helping us to improve schools educationally and more support from the parent side," he says. But he stops short of crediting the competitive atmosphere with an increase in academic achievement, particularly at the elementary school level. The test scores, he says, are more likely the result of an early emphasis on literacy, reduced class sizes and a program for four-year-olds.

A Shared Philosophy

Daniel McKinley is executive director of the Milwaukee-based Partners Advancing Values in Education, a private foundation whose mission is to "make excellent educational opportunities available to low-income families in Milwaukee." He notes a "sea change" in the outlook among Milwaukee public school administrators since the inception of the choice program. Before, he says, parental desires came last; today, the district is more responsive to parents.

McKinley says that in Milwaukee, the emphasis is not on public or private, but on successful or failing schools--a mindset shared by enough political, educational and business leaders to keep the program going. In addition, the program's focus on giving opportunities to some of the poorest families makes it harder for its opponents to refute it, says Tony Evers, deputy state superintendent for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which administers the program. In addition, says Evers, "the advocates for the program are well-organized, very interested in succeeding, and have generated enough support in the legislature."

Private and Political Allies

Parental choice in Milwaukee had its roots in the inner city, among parents dissatisfied with the public school system and in the leadership of Democratic Assemblywoman Annette "Polly" Williams, who pushed the first version of the parental choice program through the legislature (initially the program was limited to 1,000 students and to non-sectarian schools).

School choice also had a powerful ally in then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, currently the nation's secretary of health and human services. Another supporter was John Norquist, the city's Democratic mayor since 1988. In fact, in 2002, Norquist appeared in a television ad campaign for school choice that ran in the Washington, D.C., area. "Our vouchers give low-income children a chance to escape failing schools," he said, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "And just as important, public school officials say vouchers give our schools an incentive to improve."

Other organizations backing school choice have been the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a 2,500-member business organization; Mitchell's group, the AERC; McKinley's group, PAVE. As a three-year court battle waged over the expansion of the program and its inclusion of religious schools, 4,500 students were able to attend private schools on PAVE scholarships. "Our scholarship program kept hope alive for parents," says McKinley.

Sound Program Management

After more than a decade, the parental choice program in Milwaukee runs like routine. Students qualify for the program based on residency in Milwaukee and family household income. In 2003-04, for example, a household of four qualifies if their income is $32,532 or lower. Parents apply to the school of their choice during an open application period; if more applications are received than spots available, students are chosen by random drawing.

According to Tricia Collins, who oversees the program for the Department of Public Instruction, the state issues checks payable to the parent of a choice student four times a year and sends them to the school where the child is enrolled. This year, each receives $5,882 in state aid or the equivalent of the private school's cost per student, if it is less.

Evers, the deputy state superintendent, emphasizes that the state's job is to run the program, not to endorse it. "Our role is to administer the program fairly and appropriately, not to act as an advocate," he says. Evers says the state gets hit from both sides--from those who'd like to see the program dismantled and from those who complain that the program's ability to expand is too limited.

But the biggest challenge, he says, is trying to ensure quality control without being accused of becoming too intrusive. "The whole accountability thing isn't in place," he says. "There's legislation under consideration to develop a longitudinal study. The private schools should be held to the same standardized tests as the public schools."

Challenges Ahead

The Milwaukee parental choice program faces two major issues in the coming years. In some ways, it still needs to prove itself. Legislation under review would commission the state's impartial Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a long-term, longitudinal study of the parental choice program. Private and religious schools may have to agree to administer state standardized tests, so apples-to-apples comparisons can be made.

Previous studies of the Milwaukee program have yielded mixed results. For example, a 1997 study by Princeton University professor Cecilia Rouse concluded that choice students had matched the reading gains of their public school counterparts and had outperformed them in math. In previous studies, University of Wisconsin evaluator John Witte concluded that choice students showed no academic gains over their public school peers. Meanwhile, using the same data, Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, determined just the opposite.

In another study, Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard University economics professor, found that Milwaukee public schools most exposed to competition from private school scholarships had greater increases in math, science and language arts than in schools less exposed to competition. Hoxby studied only fourth-grade scores. When Greene and another colleague built on her study in 2002, they did not find the same gains among eighth and 10th graders.

Mitchell maintains that school choice has bettered education in Milwaukee, although she acknowledges that there is no way to draw a cause-and-effect conclusion. "This has not been the ruination of the public school system," she says. "In fact, the opposite is true. Dropout rates are down, achievement scores have increased, and enrollment has risen about 6 percent. Real spending has risen about 46 percent, which means per-pupil spending has gone up." In addition, she says, the program has created an unexpected bonus: more private investment in some of the city's poorest public schools.

The second issue facing school choice is a cap that allows no more than 15 percent of Milwaukee public school students--about 15,000--to participate in the program. "The cap is a real significant issue that could grind the program to a halt in two to four years," says Mitchell. Once the cap is reached, choice spots would be rationed among schools, meaning about 150 seats apiece at each of the 100 participating schools. At Messmer, where Anthony Johnson is a student, there are 740 choice students, nearly 600 of whom would be forced to leave, says Mitchell.

While the issues are sorted out, a large number of inner-city parents are pinning their hopes on the program's continued viability. One of them is Milwaukee mother Aslander Flowers, whose son, Keith, is a first grader at Atlas Preparatory Academy. Flowers says teachers there are more attentive to her son's learning style and make her feel more involved in his success.

"I thank God for the choice program," she says. "At least it gives me the chance to decide where my child goes and what's best for him. I have the opportunity to send my child to a place where he can enjoy learning."

In Maine, School Choice is Old Hat

School choice is no big deal in Maine, where a form of vouchers has existed since 1873. Like its neighboring state, Vermont, Maine long ago instituted a practice called "town tuitioning" to provide educational opportunities for children living in rural or non-urban areas. Parents in tuitioning towns may send their children to public and non-sectarian private schools in other areas of the state. A 2002 study by Christopher Hammonds of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation found that tuitioning has had several positive benefits, including higher student achievement in areas where competition for students is greatest and significant cost savings to Maine and Vermont taxpayers.

"School choice hasn't really become a huge issue," says Greg Scott, a spokesperson for the Maine State Department of Education, who points out that Maine has initiated several programs to enable students to take advantage of academic offerings at other public schools. These include superintendent agreements, regional programs and distance learning initiatives.

"In Maine, [school choice] works de facto because the population is small enough and the attitude is 'Let's do what's best for the kids,' " Scott says. In addition, he says, the state has equalized its funding formula for each district based on property values, student population and income levels. Every district receives its fair share of funds. And geographic barriers mean there's no mad dash for perceived elite districts. "School districts are so far apart that even if you found one you liked better, it would be very difficult to get to," he says.

Jennifer Covino is a contributing editor.