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Voucher System For 1,000 Pupils Adopted in Wis.

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Proponents of private-school choice plans won a major victory late last week when the Wisconsin legislature approved a bill that will give almost 1,000 Milwaukee public-school students the option of attending nonsectarian private schools at state expense.

The measure differs from other voucher-type proposals in that it is specifically aimed at low-income children who are currently enrolled in public schools or have dropped out.

"The state is directly helping families who have drive, who have high expectations, but who don't have money, to vote with their feet," said state Representative Annette Williams, the chief sponsor of the bill.

"We're now going to show that our children can be educated successfully for less than half the money that the Milwaukee schools use to miseducate our students," added Ms. Williams, who also has sponsored legislation, thus far unsuccessful, to create a new district in Milwaukee's inner city that would be mostly black.

Gov. Tommy Thompson has indicated that he will sign the private-school choice measure, according to his aides.

"This is a very historic day for the poor and for civil rights," said John E. Coons, professor of law at the University of California Berkeley and a proponent of vouchers.

"People who have been pretty much entombed in segregated public schools will have a chance to get their civil rights vindicated in the private sector," he said.

The measure passed despite stiff opposition from the state's teacher organizations and Milwaukee public-school officials, who have succeeded in blocking similar bills in recent years.

"The parents and the private schools make the decisions about who is going where, and we end up paying for it," said Douglas Haselow, a lobbyist for the Milwaukee schools. The district would lose state per-pupil aid for each student who opted to enroll in a private school.

The district, which faces a severe overcrowding problem, had proposed a bill last year that would have allowed it to contract with private schools to provide services for certain students.

Senator's Support Crucial

A key factor in the passage of the private-school-option bill was the support it received from state Senator Gary R. George, who was instrumental in defeating similar bills in the last two sessions proposed by Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Mr. George, the co-chairman of4the legislature's joint committee on finance, attached the measure as a rider to a budget bill that the legislature was forced to act on before it adjourned last week.

"The critical state of the Milwaukee public schools has forced the legislature and the Governor to take this emergency step," said Walter C. Farrell, senior policy adviser to Senator George.

"This may serve to stimulate more results-oriented change than what we have witnessed for the African-American students in the Milwaukee schools, who are woefully underserved," he added.

Representative Williams said she pulled together a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans to support the bill. "Only the white liberals fought it," she said.

Governor Thompson has said he will sign the bill, and will not use his amendatory veto powers to make major changes to it, according to his education aide, Thomas J. Fonfara.

"He gave assurances," Mr. Fonfara said, "that he was not going to use his veto to make it a statewide program, that he was not going to open it to others who are not low-income, that he wasn't going to lift the limit on the number of students, and that he wasn't going to broaden it to include parochial schools."

Bill's Provisions

Under the new program, which will last five years, no more than 1 percent of Milwaukee's 93,000 students will be permitted to enroll in nonsectarian schools that agree to accept the state's per-pupil aid allotment--approximately $2,500--as full reimbursement for tuition costs.

The measure limits eligibility to children from families whose annual incomes are no greater than 175 percent of the federal poverty level.

Participating schools must be accredited under the state's existing private-school standards, but will not face additional state requirements under the program, Ms. Williams said.

"We wanted to make sure these schools will continue to be the kinds of schools they were in the beginning," Ms. Williams explained. "They have a track record that you can't question with children that the public schools say can't make it."

At least six schools were active in the drafting of the bill and are eager to participate, she said, and several others expressed interest when the measure moved closer to passage.

A survey of the schools found that they have just enough space available for the expected influx of students, Ms. Williams added.

Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee identified 13 eligible schools in a letter announcing his veto of a resolution passed by the Milwaukee City Council opposing the measure.

"I feel that such alternative programs provide healthy competition for the Milwaukee public schools and will add to the overall effort toward quality education for all chil4dren in the city of Milwaukee," the Mayor wrote.

Other States' Programs

Most of the handful of programs in other states that allow students to attend private schools at public expense give school districts a role in approving and monitoring the participation of the private schools.

Washington State's private educational clinics, which are not required to operate under contract with a district, were specifically designed as a short-term alternative for students who have not succeeded in the public schools.

The Wisconsin measure most closely resembles the voucher-type plan proposed for Kansas City students in a court case filed last year. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1989.)

Supporters of that plan are preparing to file an appeal of a federal judge's recent dismissal of the case, said Mr. Coons, who helped fashion the Kansas City plan and who first propounded the idea of vouchers for disadvantaged students in the 1970's.

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