The Future That Works: Milwaukee’s School Choice Revolution

In 1990, Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert Grover labeled Milwaukee’s school choice plan “ludicrous” and a “disgrace.” He dismissed the schools in the program as little more than “souped up day care centers.” The Milwaukee Sentinel denounced the plan as a “boondoggle,” which “essentially penalizes the poor to benefit the few.”

Forming a phalanx of establishment opposition, the NAACP, the teachers’ unions, the Wisconsin Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, filed suit to block the experimental program that transferred educational decisions from government officials to parents and forced public education to compete with the private sector both for students and funds.

After the suit failed, what could not be accomplished legally was attempted bureaucratically. In the program’s first year, Superintendent Grover gave schools only two weeks to apply for participation and insisted that applicants comply with an array of Kafkaesque bureaucratic regulations. Since then, Grover has blocked the expansion of the program to high schools (his investigators found too many crucifixes in one independent Catholic school), hired an outspoken critic of choice to evaluate the program, and refused to release the data used in that evaluation.

Even so, two years after it brought down upon itself the malediction of the education establishment, Milwaukee’s choice plan remains the nation’s most watched educational experiment.

And, despite everything, it seems to be working. Enrollment in the publicly-funded choice program is up 81 percent since the first year, parental involvement and satisfaction are high, the schools in the program have all the marks of “effective schools,” and early gains in reading scores are significant.

In their first year, students in the choice schools gained more on standardized reading tests than did students in public schools. This is all the more remarkable when the background of these students is considered. Ninety-eight percent of the students in Milwaukee’s program are from low-income families and 96 percent are minorities.

Although critics often charge that school choice would skim off the best and brightest students from the public schools, that simply was not the case in Milwaukee. Professor Paul Peterson, the director of the Center of American Political Studies at Harvard, analyzed the program and found that choice students were not simply a cross-section of Milwaukee students or even students from low-income families. Choice students not only lagged behind average Milwaukee students, he discovered, but scored lower on both reading and math than students from low-income families in the city.

After only a single year, the reading scores of students in the choice schools had risen by four points. At the same time, reading scores of students in the public schools dropped by two points. Choice students—who had scored two points lower on reading tests than low-income students citywide—now scored three points above the low-income average. Significantly, the private schools in the choice program achieved these gains although they spent less than half as much per pupil as the Milwaukee public schools.

Reviewing the early success of school choice in Milwaukee, Professor Peterson concluded that “if the program is given more adequate funding by public officials, this experiment in Milwaukee may have identified the mechanism necessary to provide educational opportunity for low-income minorities in impoverished central cities in the decades ahead.”

It may also provide valuable lessons for the politics of school choice. While prospects for school choice at the federal level have dimmed, the idea remains alive at the local level. Now in its third year, choice’s political support in Milwaukee seems to be solidifying, and supporters of choice in Milwaukee have now successfully opened a second front—a privately funded school choice program that may soon involve thousands of low-income children.

Legacy of Failure

The magnitude of the success of school choice can only be understood by contrast with the record of failure in Milwaukee’s public schools. In 199o, the first year of school choice in Milwaukee, the average grade point average for high school students in Milwaukee was D+. Only 32 percent of black students graduated from high schools, down from 45 percent a decade earlier. Hispanic graduation rates were only slightly better. At some high schools, the average grade point average for black students was F+ or below; more than half of the black students flunked core courses.

It was difficult to blame this on lack of funding. Between 1976 and 1988, per pupil spending rose 190 percent in Milwaukee. State aid to the system leapt by 2.78 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation. By 1989-90, the city spent nearly $6,000 per student—a 2.2. percent increase in just three years. None of this brought even modest improvement in educational achievement.

Standardized tests found that only z3 percent of the city’s black students read at or above the national average, as compared with 61 percent of the white students; only 22. percent of black students scored at or above the national average on math tests (compared with 59 percent of whites).

Despite a series of reform efforts throughout the 197os and ‘8os, Milwaukee’s public schools remained remarkably immune to change. They were also notably unaccountable. In the five years before school choice began, not a single teacher had been fired for ineffective teaching. Not one of the i,000 or so new teachers hired by the Milwaukee public schools in that period had been denied tenure.

If the public was slow to grasp the implications of this record, the teachers them¬ selves were not. A 1987 survey by the University of Wisconsin found that 6z percent of Milwaukee’s public school teachers wouldn’t want their children to attend the school at which they taught. “It’s no wonder then,” remarked the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund, “that nearly half of the children of Milwaukee’s public school teachers attend private schools, double the average for all school-age children.”

Strange Bedfellows

Until 1990, the politics of school choice were drearily predictable. Governor Tommy Thompson, a conservative Republican from a small rural community, had long supported choice, but his proposals were defeated by a Democratic legislature that has often been characterized as a wholly-owned and operated subsidiary of the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

The logjam blocking the enactment of a public-funded choice plan was finally broken only when Republican Thompson made common cause with the unlikeliest of allies, Democratic State Representative Annette “Polly” Williams. Williams, who served as co-chairman of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in Wisconsin, had withdrawn her own children from the public schools 20 years earlier. An increasingly high profile figure in Milwaukee’s central city, Williams mobilized strong black support, which in turn moved Democratic votes in the legislature. Williams effectively gave voice to the community’s outrage over the poor performance of its schools and its disillusionment with a decade and a half of busing for school integration. Although Milwaukee’s school desegregation had begun with strong black support, enthusiasm waned when it became apparent that black students bore the overwhelming burden of being shipped across town, without reaping comparable academic gains.

“We’re trying to free the slaves,” Williams declared. “We’re trying to free the hostages.” She was unfazed by her alliance with political conservatives. “The fact that conservatives all support this, it doesn’t bother me one bit,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I think it’s time black people begin to look out for ourselves.”

Under the Thompson-Williams plan, up to 933 low-income children—one percent of the school system’s total enrollment— were eligible to participate in the choice pilot program. Each would be given about $2,5oo—their share of state education aid—to attend the private school of their choice. Participation was sharply limited. To be eligible, family income could not exceed 175 percent of the poverty level (which would be $25,412 for a family of four in 1992); and schools could not enroll more than 49 percent of their students from the choice plan. Although Thompson had favored including parochial schools, the final legislation was limited to non-sectarian schools.

Opposition was fierce and bitter from the outset. The state superintendent, Grover, pleaded for someone—anyone—to file a lawsuit to block the program. And when the usual suspects of the educational establishment took him up on it, he joined in the suit himself. The issue was not resolved until March 1992, when the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school choice.

Opponents of choice like Grover insisted that they were not objecting to choice per se, but rather to the use of public dollars for private education. In fact, spending public money for private education was a longstanding practice in Wisconsin. For years, the Milwaukee public schools had contracted with private schools to educate so-called “at risk” students. In 1991-2, Milwaukee’s public school system paid private schools to take more than 1,400 “at risk” students off its hands and paid them 8o percent of the public school cost of education to do so (far more than the state would pay the schools for choice students).

In fact, the public school system was already paying several of the same schools in the choice program for educating “at risk” students. But no one had objected to the constitutionality of the earlier program, and there were no court challenges. Why, then, the controversy about the Thompson-Williams choice plan?

“Two reasons,” consultant George Mitchell explains. “The first is control. Parents don’t control the ‘at risk’ program; school bureaucrats do. The second related to the affected students. ‘At risk’ students often have proven difficult to handle; school officials don’t object to finding an alternative space for them.”

Against the Odds

It would be hard to imagine a less auspicious beginning than the first year of school choice in Milwaukee. Grover’s Department of Public Instruction was required by law to publicize the program, but issued only a single press release, giving schools only two weeks to apply for participation in the program. Throughout the first two years, the program was shadowed by the continuing legal challenge that threatened to scuttle choice at any time.

The limitations in the law itself also proved restrictive. Because the state provided only $2,500 a student, private schools were forced to subsidize choice students and their participation was capped by law.

As a result of all of these factors, only 341 students enrolled at seven private schools in the first year of choice. The number rose to 521 the second year, and 617 students in eleven schools in 1991. Even so, more than 700 student applications—including 406 in 1992 alone— have been rejected because of funding or other legal restrictions.

Under state law, Grover’s department was charged with evaluating the success of choice in Milwaukee, a task he approached with no less hostility than he had approached choice from the beginning.

Grover handpicked University of Wisconsin Professor John Witte, a well-known critic of school choice, to evaluate the program. Witte’s recommendations were predictable: he advised against expanding choice and supported extensive new regulation of the choice schools. He has also made it virtually impossible to evaluate his research. Under his arrangement with Grover, Witte has apparently been made the sole custodian of all of the records turned over to the state Department of Public Instruction, and he refuses to make them public. In a widely publicized analysis of Witte’s evaluation, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute charged that “Grover effectively granted Witte a monopoly on evaluating the program.”

Even so, Witte’s first-year evaluation admitted the successes of the choice schools. He acknowledged the increased level of parental involvement:

In general, the schools have elaborate and refined organizational structures that involve parents heavily. Parental involvement, which was already high for Choice parents in their prior schools, generally increased in the private schools, especially in the areas of volunteering and fund-raising.

Witte also refuted Grover’s charges that the private schools would be academically inferior, little more than “souped up day care centers.” Wrote Witte:

Classes that we observed were generally small, with a high proportion of student time spent on task. The curricula were relatively rich in terms of art, music and dance, languages, and computer use.

And he seemed to acknowledge the basic rationale behind choice.

Rather than skimming off the best students, this program seems to provide an alternative educational environment for students who are not doing particularly well in the public school system. . . . Despite some problems and difficulties . . . it is clear this program . . . offers the seeds of innovation, opportunities for poor parents that are already available to most other parents in our state, and marginal support for nonsectarian private schools, schools that for a number of years have been working to provide education under some of the most adverse conditions.

Politically, this could have been disastrous to Grover and other opponents of choice. Grover was, however, bailed out by a compliant media. The state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal, ran a headline declaring, “scores aren’t up under school choice,” and it added that “the first independent evaluation of [choice] . . . found no evidence that choice was boosting student achievement.”

Ignoring the fact that choice students had started behind other low-income students, Witte had concluded that choice students “clearly are not yet on par with the average Milwaukee public school student in reading and math skills.” Rather than comparing choice students to other low-income students—a comparable sample population—Witte compared them with all Milwaukee public school students. In fact, after only a single year, the choice students outscored low-income students in the public schools by three points in reading tests and had cut the seven point gap with average Milwaukee public school students to a single point.

Witte’s sleight-of-hand drew a strong rebuke from Harvard’s Professor Peterson. Noting that median reading scores had risen in the choice schools while dropping in the public schools, Peterson charged that Witte’s report contained “biases in . . . design and interpretation . . . against . . . choice plans.”

As of this writing, no Milwaukee news outlet has reported on Peterson’s findings.

Second Front

Milwaukee’s publicly-funded choice program had not yet entered its third year when choice advocates opened a second front. On June 10, 1992, a group of business and civic leaders announced a large-scale, privately-funded school choice program. The group, known as Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), offered tuition grants of up to $1,000 to low-income families who wanted to send their children to any of the city’s 95 private or parochial schools.

Within 24 hours of the announcement, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported, “the hottest ticket in town . . . was an application for a new educational choice program.” All of the 4,500 applications distributed around the city were picked up the first day. Within a week, 7,500 applications had been picked up.

At one school, St. Matthew’s Catholic Grade School on the city’s near south side, parents stood in line before the school opened the day after the program was announced. “We had people all day long, some old, some new,” the school’s principal, Sister Leonius Skaar, told the Sentinel. “It was fun to see their faces. They could hardly believe it, they were so excited.”

In its first semester of operation in the fall of 1992, PAVE had awarded $954,943 in grants to 1,706 elementary school students. Of the grants, 1,043 went to new students, 663 to students who were currently enrolled in the private schools. In addition, PAVE provided $341,9z5 in tuition grants to z67 students to attend private high schools in the area.

Like the state’s choice program, the PAVE program was also the product of an unusual political coalition involving the liberal Archbishop Rembert Weakland, Milwaukee Mayor John 0. Norquist, the business community, and the conservative Bradley Foundation. Led by president Michael Joyce, an eloquent and forceful advocate of choice, the Bradley Foundation was the sparkplug for the private tuition grant program. While several large Milwaukee corporations pledged $100,000 a year to PAVE, Bradley committed $1.5 million over three years to the program.

Joyce also made it clear that the ultimate goal of the program was to change public policy by moving public opinion ahead of state policy makers. “This is only the first step,” he said. “More broadly, we need to ask ourselves why we permit the public school system to maintain its monopolistic grip on our state’s and nation’s resources. It’s conspicuously failing, while alongside it the private system, which is conspicuously succeeding, is being starved out of existence.”

Joyce and others behind PAVE are consciously intensifying the pressure on the state legislature to expand the current choice program by limiting their support to three years. After that point, they argue, the state should provide all parents with the option to choose their children’s school.

Legislation creating such a voucher program is expected to be taken up by the state’s legislature in 1993. Although the teachers’ unions continue to hold sway in the legislature, the Wisconsin choice coalition will be formidable, including Catholic parents’ organizations, representatives of the black community, some of the state’s most influential business leaders and foundation heads, the liberal mayor of Milwaukee and—most important of all—the growing constituency of parents and children in effective, successful private schools.

The political and bureaucratic obstacles to choice remain daunting. Given its limitations, Milwaukee’s choice program may be too small to provide the competitive incentives public schools require to improve themselves. Opponents, moreover, can be expected to redouble their attempts to undermine and obstruct choice as its threat to the status quo becomes more apparent.

But on balance, the record is Milwaukee in encouraging. Even the most momentous revolutions have small beginnings.


  • Charles J. Sykes

    Charles J. Sykes is the editor of Wisconsin Interest and a Senior Fellow of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. He also hosts a talk-radio show on AM 620 WTMJ in Milwaukee.

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