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Milwaukee Schools: Proving that Vouchers, Charters and Choice Work
By David W. Kirkpatrick (December 06, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
In a recent interview program on television one of the participants said that proponents of school vouchers suggest a number of positive results would occur, including advantages for students, development of effective alternative schools and programs, and improvements in the local school system, none of which have happened anywhere.  Such ignorance (or deliberate distortion, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt) is neither unheard of nor rare.  The sad part, too common, is that his remarks passed relatively unanswered.
 
Obviously he has not heard of Vermont where more than 90 or the state's 240 or so local communities lack an elementary school, a secondary school, or both.  Instead they engage in what they call "tuitioning" whereby, as decided by local voters, the towns elect to provide financial support for students to go to a school of their choice.  Not only that, the schools may be in or out of state or even, in rare instances, in other nations with financial aid for tuition but not for travel to and from, or residency expenses.   For school success you may find hard to believe, see the November  9, 2006 commentary about the St. Johnsbury Academy in what is called the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  Alternatively, a Google search for "St. Johnsbury Academy" will give you thousands of hits, including the Academy's website.
 
But what is probably Exhibit A of more recently inaugurated programs, began in March 1990 when the Wisconsin legislature, at the urging of Rep. Polly Williams, a Black Representative whose district involved part of Milwaukee, passed a school voucher program initiating an ongoing chain of events.
 
The program to date could justify a book, or several, but snapshots of then and now are illustrative.
 
The original program authorized a limited voucher for a maximum of 1% of the district's students. The educational establishment, of course, vehemently opposed the legislation, tried to limit its implementation, or have the legislation repealed.  Initial and subsequent successes, however, were such that over the years both the amount and number of vouchers were periodically increased.  Milwaukee's mayor and some members of the school board became among the program's strongest advocates.  Today the voucher is worth about $6,500 and there is no enrollment cap - it was lifted two years ago.
 
In March of 1990 the district enrolled 93,000 students.  It was reported that sixty percent of the students who managed to reach 9th grade failed to graduate and, of the 40% who did graduate, only one-fourth, of 10% of the entire student body could read at a minimally acceptable level.  The situation was so bad that it was claimed that 62% of the district's teachers and administrators would not send their own children to the city's public schools.
 
The current picture may be summarized from a recent article by Alan J. Borsuk in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
 
Today more than 30% of Milwaukee students receive public funding assistance to attend schools other than the normal Milwaukee Public School (MPS) offerings.  MPA enrollment is now slightly less than 82,000.  Another 19,000 are using vouchers to attend 122 private schools within the city. This is up more than 20% just since the enrollment cap was eliminated two years ago.  If these students constituted a single unit, they would comprise the sixth largest district in the state.
 
The addition of charter schools also enters the picture.  More than 5,000 students are in charter schools authorized by either the city of Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  So much for the argument that new alternatives would not be created by choice programs.
 
Another 3,000 students are in charter schools authorized by the school district but not staffed by district teachers.  Nearly 2,600 are in schools that contract with the district.  More than 9,200 students attend charter schools authorized and staffed by the district.  So much for the argument that choice will not improve local public schools.
 
Finally, 6600 city students attend suburban schools as the result of a voluntary racial integration program and an open enrollment law.
 
Perfection has not been achieved but, as Borsuk wrote, "it is clear...parents like the idea of having choices and are using the new avenues for school selection widely."

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"There are some excellent individual schools in every urban district, but not one school district that can be described as excellent–or even satisfactory...To able, experienced teachers in urban school systems, however, the school bureaucracy is recognized as a structure that has been systematically organized to prevent effective teaching and learning."  P. 61, Martin Haberman, Star Teachers of Children in Poverty, West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1995

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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