The Voucher Boondoggle in Wisconsin

When Gwen Moore walked into Milwaukee’s North Division High School in September 1965, she was terrified. “North was seen as this jungle,” she explains more than 40 years later. “All black, segregated, inferior.” Moore had wanted to attend West Division high School, a “white” school closer to home. When she tried to register at West, school officials told her she had to go to North Division. (It would be another decade before the federal courts would order the desegregation of Milwaukee’s schools.) “My mom was in Texas at a Baptist convention, and I talked to her and said, ‘Mom, they wouldn’t let me go to West,’ ” Moore remembers. “Gerrymandering,” her mom muttered. “Gerry who?” Moore asked. “Never mind. Go on to North and when I get back we’ll straighten this out,” her mom answered. Moore laughs at the story’s irony. By the time her mother returned, Moore had fallen in love with North Division. “I begged my mom to let me stay,” she recalls. In 2004, Moore became the first African American from Wisconsin elected to the U.S. Congress. Over the years, she has spoken forcefully about the need to defend public education. Moore cannot say enough good things about her time at North Division. She uses her experience to underscore that no school should ever be judged— let alone dismissed as beyond redemption — merely because of test scores or its reputation in the media. Moore found both acceptance and courage while a student at North. When she spoke up, students listened. She discovered she had both leadership skills and a passion for politics. “North ended up being one of the best experiences I ever had,” Moore says. “In terms of social development and leadership skills, North was the most significant part of my life.” Using the standards of today’s corporate-oriented school reformers, the North Division of 1965 would have been dismissed as a “failing school.” Interestingly, before the 1990s, the term “failing schools” was all but nonexistent. It certainly was not applied to Jim Crow black schools in the South that could not even afford desks. In recent decades, the “failing schools” label reached new heights, applied to schools and districts alike. It became part of the established educational lexicon, used not only to deride urban public schools, but also to demand that parents be given “choice.” THE RHETORIC OF CHOICE A concept as American as apple pie, individual choice has long been considered a component of liberty. In education, used appropriately, it can ensure that public schools are sensitive to the varying needs and preferences of this country’s 50 million public school students. But that is not how the term “school choice” is used today. Just as the term “state’s rights” was code in the 1960s for opposing federal civil rights legislation, today “choice” has become code. It is code for initiatives that funnel public tax dollars into private voucher schools or privately run charters. It is code for reforms based on markets and individual decisions by consumers. It is code for programs that undermine public education, an institution so fundamental to our vision of democracy that the right to a free and public education is protected by every state constitution in the country. Wisconsin is a cautionary tale showing the link between “choice” and school vouchers, under which public tax dollars pay the tuition at private schools. In 1990, under the rationale of “choice,” Milwaukee became the first city in the country to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. When it began, the program involved roughly 340 low-income students at seven community schools. Over the years, restrictions have been lifted. Today, almost 25,000 students in Milwaukee are receiving publicly funded vouchers to attend 112 private schools, with 85% attending religious schools. In size, vouchers are almost equal to the state’s second largest school district. The history of the Milwaukee voucher program has shown that, once vouchers have a foot in the door, the voucher movement continually pushes toward its goal of a universal voucher system. In 1990, when vouchers first began, the program was limited to families at 175 percent the poverty level. By 2010, the threshold was 300 percent the poverty level. Gov. Walker and voucher supporters have admitted they would like all families, even those with million-dollar incomes, eligible. In 1990, religious schools were not allowed. In 1995, that was dropped. In 1990, voucher schools were required to have more than half their students privately paying tuition, in order to ensure they were viable private schools. Over the years, the requirement was dropped. Today, in one-fifth of the voucher schools, all the students receive a publicly funded voucher. In half the voucher schools, 95 percent or more of the students receive a voucher. Yet the schools are still defined as private. As a result, a voucher school can ignore basic constitutional protections such as due process and freedom of speech. It does not have to provide the same level of special education services. It can expel students at will. It can ignore the state’s open meetings and records requirements. It can discriminate against students on the grounds of sexual orientation. The list could go on. For more than 20 years, voucher schools have been a conservative ideologue’s dream: no teacher unions, no governmental bureaucracy, no curricular restrictions. But, despite the rhetoric propelling the voucher movement, these private schools do not out-perform public schools. In 2010, when Milwaukee’s voucher schools were required to administer the state’s achievement tests and publicly release the results, there was a collective gasp of surprise. The voucher schools did no better in reading than their public school counterparts — and were significantly worse in math. Yet using the rhetoric of choice and failing public schools, voucher proponents have pushed for an expansion of vouchers. ORIGINS OF SCHOOL VOUCHERS The voucher movement’s strategic goal was first outlined by free-market economist Milton Friedman in 1955. Funding of public schools would be replaced by vouchers for any approved school, public or private, religious or secular. Oversight would be minimal, on par with health inspection at restaurants In Friedman’s view, everyone would get vouchers, but the vouchers would be mere subsidies. More affluent parents could add to that voucher and pay the tuition at expensive private schools. Interestingly, the first contemporary use of vouchers was by whites hoping to escape desegregation. From 1959 until 1964, when federal courts intervened, officials closed all the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than comply with orders to desegregate. White parents took advantage of vouchers to a private, whites-only academy. Such an association between vouchers and white supremacy was not useful to today’s voucher and marketplace advocates. So vouchers were repackaged as “choice.” After more than 20 years, one of the clearest lessons from Milwaukee is that vouchers, above all, are a way to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools. Vouchers, at their core, are an abandonment of public education. Yes, the rhetoric of “choice” is seductive. As even Gwen Moore well knows. When a state legislator, Moore voted in support of Wisconsin’s groundbreaking legislation. At the time, she didn’t see any problems. “The program was small, it was totally secular, it was an experiment, and it was for kids who the Milwaukee Public Schools couldn’t serve for a variety of reasons,” she recalls. “Of course this is a vote I deeply regret,” she continues, “because I allowed vouchers and then I saw what it came to be. I never was the kind of voucher person who wanted to destroy public education.” DROPPING THE FAÇADE In the early years of the voucher program, supporters touted the support of African Americans, and portrayed vouchers as a way to help low-income Black children. But, as Moore’s statements have shown, it is increasingly difficult to continue such a façade. And it’s not just Moore. Polly Williams, a Democratic and an African-American state legislator who helped craft the original voucher legislation in 1990 and whom some have dubbed “The Mother of School Choice,” has long criticized the program’s expansion toward universal vouchers. In 2013, she criticized the Republican agenda and said of Gov. Walker and his voucher supporters, “They have hijacked the program.” By 2013, however, voucher supporters didn’t need Polly and didn’t care what she said. A long-time voucher supporter dismissed the criticism and said publicly what many had long suspected — that Polly Williams had been used. “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation,” voucher supporter George Mitchell wrote in a blog comment in May. When the Republicans in control of the Wisconsin legislature, bipartisan support and the involvement of African Americans was no longer necessary for the voucher movement. In the early morning hours of June 5, 2013, at roughly 3 a.m., the state’s powerful Joint Finance Committee pushed through an unparalleled expansion of school vouchers throughout Wisconsin. The vote was 12-4, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed. Vouchers were on the way to becoming a reality throughout Wisconsin. “This vote has created a separate, unaccountable statewide system of religious and private voucher schools funded with public dollars,” Tony Evers, the state superintendent, said of the committee’s action. “This pre-dawn action has not had one second of public testimony, there have been no public hearings, and no public fiscal analysis has been done.” — — — Barbara J. Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist who has covered education for more than 20 years. She is author of the newly released book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New York: New Press). This article is expanded from a piece originally appearing in Guernica, a magazine of art and politics.
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