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Vouchers For The Poor

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But voucher opponents warn that the new program will undermine the concept of equal educational opportunity and allow state lawmakers to ignore funding problems plaguing public schools.

"It's typical of many choice plans in that it's changing education on the cheap,'' says Richard Collins, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "If it's true that Milwaukee badly needs to be changed, then the legislature should provide resources to improve education for 100 percent of the kids.''

Under the new program, up to 1 percent of Milwaukee's 930,000 public school students can choose to attend a nonsectarian private school at state expense. The participating schools will receive a per-pupil allotment--estimated at $2,500 for next year--and cannot charge the students more than that.

To be eligible, the private schools must be accredited by the state, but they will not face any closer state supervision than other private schools. This provision was the focus of much of the criticism from opponents but was staunchly defended by the bill's chief sponsor, Representative Annette (Polly) Williams.

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

The private schools will also not be permitted to draw more than 49 percent of their enrollment from the program, a provision that will also help to ensure their continued autonomy, according to Williams. "They will never become fully funded state schools,'' she adds. "They will still have to attract paying students.''

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the plan is that it will be open only to students whose families' income does not exceed 175 percent of the federally established poverty level. "We're really zeroing in on the neediest students in this city,'' Williams says.

Joe Nathan, a choice expert and senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says this is "the first time a state has said to families with low incomes that they may decide-- regardless of how their youngster has done in school--whether he or she should attend a private, nonsectarian program.''

For officials of the American Federation of Teachers, the voucher plan represents the latest indication that policymakers and the general public are so frustrated with the pace of public school reform that they are seeking alternatives. They point to such other examples as the populist revolt that prompted the Illinois legislature's radical restructuring of the Chicago public schools and the decision of Chelsea, Mass., school officials to turn over the operation of their district to Boston University.

Bella Rosenberg, assistant to AFT president Albert Shanker, called the move by Wisconsin lawmakers "a sad and cynical gesture.''

Adds Rosenberg: "It's saying, 'instead of fixing the schools that a majority of kids are in, we're going to give a chance only to a relative handful of kids that the schools can pick and choose.' It's like using the lottery as policy.''

Proponents of the plan certainly made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the public schools. "The critical state of the Milwaukee Public Schools has forced the legislature and the governor to take this emergency step,'' says Walter Farrell, senior policy adviser to State Senator Gary George. "This may serve to stimulate more resultsoriented change than what we have witnessed for the African-American students in the Milwaukee schools, who are woefully underserved.''

Says Williams: "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.''

Milwaukee school officials, the target of the criticism, joined with other public education lobbyists in opposing the plan. But the district's superintendent, Robert Peterkin, says that while he is concerned that the bill may not provide adequate protections for students, he "in no way opposes choice'' and will work to ensure the program is implemented faithfully.

"These schools have been our partners for some time,'' he says, noting that the district contracts with many of them to provide preschool and daycare services.

In fact, one of the factors that may have reduced opposition to the plan among lawmakers was the district's expressed willingness to allow private schools to educate some of its students. Faced with a growing shortage of classroom space in the early elementary grades, district officials last year proposed a bill that would have enabled it to contract with many of the same private schools for regular education services.

Other unusual political circumstances also helped pave the way for the voucher experiment. Wisconsin's Governor, Tommy Thompson, has been one of the nation's most vocal advocates of private school choice plans and has been pressing the legislature to adopt such a plan for the past three years.

In addition, many of the leaders of Milwaukee's black community have been bitterly frustrated with the lack of improvement for black students under an extensive set of desegregation programs. This has led them to propose other radical solutions, including the creation of a separate inner-city school district in the city's most heavily black neighborhoods. The desegregation movement has largely proved a failure for African-Americans, Williams insists, because it forces school officials "to base everything on color as opposed to education.''

These factors enabled Williams to forge an unusual coalition between Republican legislators and her fellow Democratic lawmakers from Milwaukee that succeeded in passing the bill over the objections of her traditional liberal allies. And its success has made her an instant celebrity in conservative political circles. She has met in subsequent weeks with Vice President Quayle and several of the nation's most influential Republicans.

Even President Bush, whose lack of enthusiasm for private-school choice has angered the conservative wing of his party, praised Williams and the voucher program during a White House ceremony for the National Teacher of the Year. Bush said: "Thanks to Polly Williams, once a welfare mother of four and now a state legislator, low-income parents can choose to send their kids to private, nonsectarian schools with money from the public school system's budget paying tuition for each student. Choice empowers people, and it puts competition to work improving schools for every student.''

Williams and the measure's other proponents predict that the new program will quickly produce dramatic results among students. In any event, it will be closely watched in the coming years by supporters and opponents alike. "This will be a fascinating test of the claims and the questions that have been made about this kind of program,'' says the Humphrey Institute's Nathan.

--William Snider, Education Week

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