The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is America's longest-running private school voucher program, and it has changed the city's education landscape.
Nearly 26,000 Milwaukee students now use vouchers to attend more than 100 private schools. The program has also shifted public spending on education in the city, with more than $150 million a year going to private schools.
Tommy Thompson was governor, when Wisconsin lit its private school Choice pilot in Milwaukee in 1990. The city’s public system was struggling. Its annual high school dropout rate was in the teens, meaning fewer than 60 percent of freshmen eventually graduated, and the average grade point was a D+.
Thompson insisted, if public and private schools had to compete for students, they would flock to the best, and achievement would rise citywide.
“Monopolies just don’t seem to work. A modified choice program is going to give people a choice, especially poor people who are locked into a school district that they have no opportunity to decide if that’s a good school district for their sons and daughters,” Thompson said.
At the start, the program gave state vouchers to about 350 poor Milwaukee kids. The tax money would pay their tuition if they wanted to leave MPS and attend a non-religious private school. The state capped how many students MPS could lose at one percent of enrollment.
Choice could only nick MPS at the start, then state Superintendent Herbert Grover warned that it could ultimately dismantle what he called the common school. Grover frequently cited facts about many MPS students – not about their performance, but about their lives.
“The highest teen pregnancy rate of any industrialized nation in the western world. We have drug and alcohol problems, child abuse, low birth-weight babies. No one addresses those issues and the schools are struggling around those issues. So then we create a private school choice program where the enlightened flee the system with public resources for which there is no accountability,” Grover said.
The state’s initial requirements for participating schools were minimal. For instance, they had to select Choice students on a random basis, and most had to succeed in just one category, such as average attendance.
At first, only seven private schools took part. They included established institutions Bruce Guadalupe and Woodlands Academy. Parent Carol Dragger told us at the time, she was thrilled to move her kids out of MPS.
"We absolutely hated the bussing. The area they were in, well right now, there are shootings taking place and that’s a scary thing. Discipline – there was so much time being spent on disciplining children, that we felt it took away from the children who really are serious about learning,” Dragger said.
Within months, one voucher school abruptly closed – Juanita Virgil Academy. The owner cited several reasons, but had gotten an earful from parents sending kids there with vouchers. One mom was Janice Cochrall.
“Not enough food for the children; late buses, school started at nine, sometimes the buses come at 10:00, 10:30. The bathrooms weren’t always functioning and working. Sometimes the boys would be in the girls’ bathroom. Some of the textbooks should have been thrown in the garbage because they were just that raggedy,” Cochrall said.
Cochrall moved her kids back to MPS.
When it came to whether the voucher schools did a better job educating Choice students than MPS had done, UW-Madison Professor John Witte studied the results. We spoke with him after year three.
“These students are not scoring well,” Witte said.
Yet Witte found that most Choice parents were satisfied with the private schools; and they were not attracting the best students from MPS.
State leaders gradually expanded participation. The big spike occurred in 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that families could use their state vouchers at religious schools. Opponents, such as the Wisconsin ACLU’s Chris Ahmuty fought the expansion.
“Religious schools have to get money from people interested in propagating that particular faith. It shouldn’t come from the taxpayer,” Ahmuty said.
But the court decided the Choice program was about parents. The Milwaukee Archdiocese applauded. Its school superintendent at the time was Dr. John Norris.
“It’s the parents who have the right to say how they want their children formed. What kinds of values, what kinds of morals do they want to have purposefully and intentionally taught within the schools,” Norris said.
In addition to parents, dozens of religious schools in Milwaukee stood to benefit. Enrollment had begun declining as tuition grew and families headed to suburban districts. Former Mayor John Norquist insisted more would stay, if the city had a robust voucher program.
There has been a clear demand for it over 25 years. It now comprises what some call, the second largest school district in Wisconsin with more than 100 schools and nearly 26,000 students. Now UW Emeritus Professor John Witte says for the parents, the choice continues to be an environmental one.
“Over and over again, the private schools were seen as safe and secure and disciplined, and with an adequate achievement level, so that they can graduate from high school and have a chance to go to college. If they don’t get those two things satisfied, they will leave,” Witte said.
Plenty have opted not to attend MPS. The total amount of public money spent on vouchers in Milwaukee will soon cross $1.7 billion. Yet MPS continues serving most children here with special needs and many who fail everywhere else.
In some instances, voucher schools have let students down. In one case, the owners used the money to buy expensive cars. State leaders responded by requiring Choice schools to disclose more financial information and be accredited. Dan McKinley says some of the worst have since closed, but if he could, he’d shut down a couple dozen more. McKinley supports the voucher program.
“Unfortunately, we have a very low threshold for whether or not a school deserves to be in the Choice program. Some have really done outstanding work, others have not lived up to the promise,” McKinley said.
McKinley heads the group PAVE. It used to give scholarships to low-income Milwaukee kids who wanted to attend religious schools. Today, it focuses on developing effective school leadership teams.
‘’Now we have a much more mixed bag of schools and families looking for really good schools. They may go to a school and it’s full and they’re on a waiting list. There are not enough good options just yet,” McKinley said.
Also in the mix today are charter schools.
Despite the range of options beckoning Milwaukee students, what has not changed for thousands are deplorable living conditions - poverty, dysfunction, violence.