Showdown in Milwaukee

in Milwaukee, where the skyline is filled with church spires and where there are Catholic, Lutheran, Evangelical Christian, Jewish, Islamic and non-sectarian community schools—in Wisconsin, where pioneering black Democratic State Representative Polly Williams and white Republican Governor Tommy Thompson can join forces when the interests of children are at stake—legislation was passed this summer establishing, for Milwaukee’s poor families, the nation’s first full parental choice program.

Since 1990, thanks to Polly Williams’ leadership, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program had provided access to secular private schools for a limited number of children from poor families, but the 1995 program would be expanded in both size and scope, for it would provide the parents of up to 7,000 Milwaukee K-12 students (and up to 15,000 next year) with full choice, including religious schools, through a tuition payment of approximately $3,200.

Low-income parents, like all other parents, know, because they are human, that they are responsible for their children. They can face the fact that fate has denied them sailboats and country club memberships, but it is a bitter, bitter pill for them that they have no power to resist the compulsory institutionalization of their own children by the government in a city school system that has continued to fail in virtually every measurement of educational performance imaginable. Thus it was that when the day had finally come that poor parents were free to choose how, where, and by whom their children would be educated, they avidly made choices.

Did they do something stupid with this freedom? We have constantly been told that choice will bring about enrollments in schools run by witches, Branch Davidian sects, and the like. Since people who can afford to pay tuition already have parental choice, this charge clearly implies that poor people are stupider and more careless with their children’s futures than non-poor. But no, Milwaukee’s poor parents chose schools with well-earned reputations for educational performance. Indeed, they chose the same non-public schools that nearly a third of Milwaukee’s public school teachers, who are required to live in the city, chose for their children. As for witchcraft, anyone wanting to study that topic still has to enroll at a government school, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where such a course is offered.

Over 5,000 children—the maximum number that private and parochial schools could find desks for on short notice—were to be enrolled under the new program. Classes for many had begun on Thursday, August 24. But the very next day, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted the ACLU’s request for an injunction to stop the program immediately.

Well, that was the Court’s thinking—the Milwaukee community had another idea.

On Sunday, two days after the injunction, PAVE, a local group that had operated a privately-funded scholarship program for poor parents, announced an emergency fund campaign. On Monday, local talk radio host Charles Sykes offered to match up to $1,000 in donations with his own funds. His money was gone in minutes and when he got off the air he found people waiting in the lobby with checks. On Tuesday morning, PAVE’s mail couldn’t be delivered in one bag. Its contents ranged from a retired woman’s $20 and an “anniversary present” of $50 from a couple celebrating their 52nd year of marriage to five and ten thousand dollar checks from wealthier individuals. Later that afternoon, Democratic Mayor John Norquist joined inner city pastors at a press conference supporting the drive. Throughout the week, the Milwaukee Archdiocese spoke out for PAVE, non- government school administrators pledged to work with parents to keep their children in schools of choice, and local business leaders joined the appeal. My own foundation stepped forward with a large gift, though when I announced it, I was cautious to recall the story of the widow’s mite from the Gospel of Mark, for a grant from the Bradley Foundation is a humble gesture compared to the donations of the many citizens who gave not from bounty, but from need.

As gifts were coming in faster than they could be counted, two former U.S. Secretaries of Education, Lamar Alexander and William Bennett, came to Milwaukee on Tuesday, September 5, to speak in support of the PAVE Emergency Fund and the empowerment of parents. At that time, just over a week after establishing the emergency fund, PAVE announced that its goal of raising $1.6 million had been met.

So, through the good will and generosity of the Milwaukee community, the “lifeboat” PAVE had envisioned for the children had been constructed. PAVE’s half-tuition scholarships will enable nearly 5,000 children from poor families to continue this year at private and parochial schools their parents have chosen. But lifeboats are no substitute for the ship that went down.

The opponents of vouchers are few in a state where a strong majority favors parental choice, and where the highest level of support—nearly 70%—is found among city dwellers and African Americans. But, through a network of organizations—including the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), the Milwaukee Public Schools system (MPS), Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (an independent state agency), the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens United for Separation of Church and State, Progressive Milwaukee (a local affiliate of the radical New Party) and the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education, a so-called “citizens” group that includes WEAC, MTEA and MPS among its members—the antagonists have enormous political resources. In Milwaukee, these resources include the relentless anti-parental choice haranguing of the city’s only newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which tends to respond to regular drops in its circulation by ratcheting its positions farther and farther out of touch with the community.

The opposition’s first reaction to the injunction was surprisingly callous. As the Court’s action crushed the hopes of poor parents throughout the city, Mordecai Lee of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education is quoted rejoicing at “the first piece of good news” for his side. In a story that begins with a picture of a mother reduced to tears because she can’t enroll her daughters in a choice school, MPS school board president Mary Bills reports that “she smiled” when she learned of the injunction. We saw the mother crying again on TV several days later—with joy, this time, since an anonymous donor gave scholarships for her daughters—and the next time we heard from Mary Bills, she also had changed her tune. The anti-choice activists had adopted a new line: PAVE was now to be congratulated for realizing that private charity is the only means for supporting choice that includes religious schools. If poor citizens want an alternative to government education, said the new Marie Antoinettes, let them beg for it.

As all the other arguments against parental choice have been disproved by either or both of Milwaukee’s means- tested choice programs—the publicly- funded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program founded by Polly Williams, or the privately-funded PAVE grants— opponents have been driven to the “wall of separation” as the last line of defense for the government monopoly. Forget the fact that the government education establishment fought just as hard against choice when it was restricted to non-religious private schools, today the only argument we are hearing is the need to forestall “religious indoctrination” at public expense.

This principle appears to be a very limited one, however. In Wisconsin, public funds flow to a great many religious institutions for health and social services. The state also has tuition grants for higher education and vouchers for day care that can be cashed in by religious institutions, bracketing the K through 12 years. Why the separate policy for grades K through 12?

If the Court determines that the Wisconsin program entails a “direct subsidy” of religious institutions, it will have to regard the parent-citizen as an agent of the state, a ward of the state, or an insignificant intermediary. It will have to rule that the legislature cannot make laws which return funds collected by the state back to citizens through any instrument that does not prohibit recipients from providing such funds to a religious institution. The term “voucher” is not at issue. It is not used once in the Wisconsin legislation—the transaction is merely identified as a “payment.” Whatever the instrument is called, it is not its name but the act it represents on which the Court must rule: the act of giving back to citizens, from whom all public funds come, resources for meeting their human needs and obligations.

Call it a grant, a voucher, a payment, or a pay-back, it is a very basic function of elected legislators to determine how and how much public funding goes where and for what. Are we to believe that they are not authorized to make payments to poor parents that enable them to enroll their children in non-government schools, even if such schools are operated by religious institutions? How then are they authorized to make payments for day care and college, or social and health services that may be received by religious institutions? How are they even authorized to make payments to government employees, including teachers, who are free to pay tuition to religious schools and then receive tax deductions for donations to religious institutions? Obviously, a paycheck is not the same thing as a “dole,” and education is never considered a dole in America; the point is this: legislators can transfer money to citizens. They can transfer it with strings attached or without strings attached. Duly elected legislators in the state of Wisconsin have decided to supply funding to poor parents in Milwaukee for the valid purpose of seeing to their children’s education and they have decided to leave the question of whether or not to use the funding for a school with or without values derived from religious belief to the parents. They can do that.

But let’s call it a voucher. Let’s define it as a means to budget funding for necessities of life without requiring that they be provided by that value-neutral, acultural, secular, necessarily least effective of human institutions, the government agency. And let’s consider the budgeting of such funding to be an act and responsibility of government but its disposition to be an act and responsibility of citizenship.

The Wisconsin legislature has taken one measured, thoughtful, precedent- setting step back from micromanaging the lives of its needy citizens and a great leap forward for the revitalization of civil society and its institutions of family, church and school. Now, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will weigh in either to make history by validating or to stall by obstructing the first glimmer in the 20th century of the new wave of freedom that will characterize the 21st.

There are children, in a lifeboat, waiting.


  • Michael S. Joyce

    Michael S. Joyce (1942-2006) was an American conservative activist.

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