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Wis. Governor Seeks Pilot Voucher-Style Plan

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Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin has proposed a controversial plan to provide the parents of some of Milwaukee's most disadvantaged students with the means to send their children to any public, private, or sectarian school they choose.

The Governor's experimental "parental choice" plan, announced last week during his annual State of the State address, is similar to the proposal for compensatory-education vouchers unsuccessfully pushed by the Reagan Administration two years ago.

If Mr. Thompson's plan is adopted, Wisconsin would be the first state to test the concept on a broad basis, according to experts on parental choice.

The Governor is calling for a five-year pilot project that would begin in 1989 and involve 1,000 poor youngsters in Milwaukee. Participating parents would be given payments from the state equal to the tuition of the schools they selected for their children. The state would deduct the amount of the payments from the state aid given to the city's public schools.

"Our main theme," said Jeffrey Bartzen, the Governor's education adviser, "is that we think poor parents should have a choice, and we don't feel they should have to send their kids somewhere they don't feel comfortable with."

State officials said the proposal targets Milwaukee, in part, because it is the state's largest and most criticized school system. Nearly 40 percent of the city's high-school students fail to graduate, they point out, and many of the rest graduate with grade averages below C.

"The proposal is responding to the fact that many people in Milwaukee are extremely frustrated that the school system isn't responding well enough to their needs," said Barbara Notestein, a Democratic state representative from the city.

"I have certain misgivings about the plan," she added, "but I do think itwould be good for Milwaukee public schools to have a little competition."

Howard Fuller, a longtime critic of Milwaukee's schools and one of the architects of a plan to carve out a separate, mostly minority school district from the city system, welcomed the proposal.

"It's giving poor parents the option that people with money already have, and that is voting with their feet and taking their resources with them," he said.

But the plan, which must be approved by the legislature, has also drawn sharp criticism from the state's largest teachers' union, some legislators, and officials of the Milwaukee district--which stands to lose millions of dollars in state aid if the proposal is adopted.

"We have some serious concern about any attempt to take money away from the public schools and giving it to private schools," said Hawthorne Faison, the city's acting school superintendent.

He said the loss of the funds would "degrade" the system, which he noted is already attempting to expand the range of choices available to parents through 51 "specialty" or magnet schools.

"Rather than solving the problems of a small number of minorities," said Morris Andrews, executive director of the Wisconsin Education Association, "why not require the school district to make the changes necessary to better the educational process for all students?"

Constitutional Questions

Critics also question whether the plan would pass muster under either the federal or state constitutions.

Wisconsin's constitution, in particular, contains strong prohibitions against providing state aid to private schools--particularly those affiliated with religious organizations.

In response to such concerns, Governor Thompson has asked the state attorney general to make a prompt "declaratory judgment" on the legality of the proposal.

Patricia M. Lines, a research analyst for the U.S. Education Department who has studied the issue of state aid to church-affiliated schools, said last week that two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court appear to support the type of aid proposed by Mr. Thompson.

In 1986, she noted, the Court held that states do not violate the First Amendment's prohibition againstestablishment of religion when they provide "wholly neutral" aid to individuals--regardless of their age--for use in public or church-affiliated schools. That case, Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, involved the payment of vocational-rehabilitation funds to a blind college student who was studying to become a minister.

Two years earlier, in Mueller v. Allen, the Court upheld a Minnesota law that provides tax deductions for certain educational expenses, even though the vast majority of the law's beneficiaries are the parents of children attending church-affiliated schools. The Court held that the program was constitutional because it benefitted children as individuals.

New Reagan Initiative

Under the Reagan Administration's voucher plan, which was withdrawn in late 1986 after much opposition, Chapter 1 remedial-education aid would have been disbursed in the form of vouchers that could have been used for expenses at public or nonpublic schools.

Last week, the President directed the Education Department to draft model state legislation that would allow parents to use state-issued Chapter 1 vouchers at any school. (See story on page 11.)

Some states, such as Minnesota and Vermont, have employed the concept on a limited basis, Ms. Lines said. In Minnesota, for example, 11th- and 12th-grade students are allowed to attend public or private colleges for high-school credit.

And last year, Iowa lawmakers enacted a tax-deduction program similar to the one in Minnesota.

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