Vermonters for Better Education
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(Editor's Note: Although the following article deals with urban school issues, many of the underlying principles are relevant for all parents and students.) Citizens across America will hear opponents of school vouchers claim that there is "no proof" low-income children will benefit if their parents choose the school they attend. This is one of many aspects of the school choice debate where, in fact, we have a great deal of proof.
I can prove that urban public schools are failing poor children, most of whom are African American. I can prove they and their parents are treated differently than middle class students and parents who do have choice. I can prove that no parent with choice regards it as unimportant. Finally, based on experience in Milwaukee, I can prove that vouchers for low-income children can help them and the public schools.
In 1990, Milwaukee became the nation's first city where low-income parents could use public support to enroll their children in private schools. A program that started with about 300 students has expanded to about 6,000.
The impact has been overwhelmingly positive. Significantly, the benefits extend beyond improved achievement for participating students and satisfaction on the part of their parents. The prospect of real accountability to parents has sent a jolt of energy into a lethargic public school system. Consider that:
These developments are a response to the fact that parents in Milwaukee now have options. MPS no longer has a monopoly entitlement to taxpayer support, irrespective of results. It no longer can take its students for granted.
Who are the participating students? How have they done in their new schools? Studies show that participating students are among the lowest academic achievers in the State of Wisconsin. Other research, by scholars at the University of Texas, Harvard, and Princeton, finds that after three years in the program these students have made substantial academic gains. Still other studies find high levels of parent satisfaction and involvement.
A skeptic of a pending New York school choice plan said recently that giving choice to low-income parents could signal "…the beginning of the end of public education…" Not in Milwaukee, where empowering low-income parents is seen as a way to strengthen and redefine what "public education" is all about.
The coalition of Milwaukee choice supporters includes citizens of all races and income levels. Many have worked for decades for strong public schools. Many have children attending public schools. They have not given up on public education. Rather, they believe that choice for low-income parents will strengthen public schools and make them more accountable to the majority of students who will remain in those schools.
And, after years of experience, they have the facts to prove it.
Professor Howard Fuller, founder and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, was Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991 to 1995. Reprinted with permission from the May 1999 issue of Liberty & Law, a publication of the Institute for Justice.