A Choice in The Matter

By David Ruenzel — September 07, 1995 29 min read
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Outside the doors of Milwaukee’s Bruce Guadalupe School, one of the original seven nonsectarian schools participating in the nation’s first private school voucher program, you can pick up a tabloid called Welfare Mother’s Voice that says much about the constituency and Zeitgeist of the city’s controversial choice initiative.

The mission statement of Welfare Mother’s Voice reads, “We will no longer remain silent. We will unite and fight for the lives of all mothers and children in poverty. We demand dignity.’' Inside are angry stories about disdainful health-care workers, deadbeat dads, and the endless string of small humiliations that plague the lives of the very poor. “We’re not going to take it anymore’’ is the predominant tone.

In more than a few respects, the stories in the tabloid parallel the stories of the parents participating in Milwaukee’s school-choice program. During the 1994-95 school year, these parents received vouchers worth $3,200 each to send their children, some 850 in all, to one of a dozen participating nonsectarian private schools. Participation in the voucher plan is limited to families with incomes within 175 percent of the poverty line--$26,513 a year for a family of four--but the typical choice family gets by on about half that amount.

For the first four years of the plan, 75 percent of the parents were single; 57 percent received federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children. More than 90 percent of their children were eligi-

ble for free lunch. Seventy-four percent of the choice students were African-American; 19 percent were Hispanic. At their old public schools, the students’ standardized test scores put them at the bottom of rankings in terms of academic achievement. Many were classic “problem children,’' their parents contacted due to bad behavior almost twice as often as others.

This summer, Milwaukee’s many critics turned their attention toward the proposed expansion of the city’s choice plan. On June 22, the State Assembly voted to permit up to 7,000 Milwaukee children (as many as 15,000 by the 1996-97 school year) from low-income families to attend private religious schools as well as private nonsectarian schools. A week later, the state Senate also passed the bill; shortly thereafter, the governor signed the measure into law.

Opponents, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, filed suit on Aug. 1 to block the program’s expansion to religious schools, arguing that it was a violation of both the Wisconsin and U.S. constitutions. On Aug. 25, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction that brought the program’s controversial extension to a halt.

In response, a local campaign raised some $1.5 million in private donations last month to grant a reprieve to the children who enrolled in parochial schools under the program--at least for now. Ultimately, however, the fate of the expanded program will be decided in court. Opposition to choice in Milwaukee is nothing new.

But back in 1990, when Assemblywoman Annette “Polly’’ Wil~liams pushed the original plan--then limited to 1,000 stu-dents and nonsectarian schools--through the legislature on behalf of her Northside constituents, critics found countless reasons to oppose private school vouchers.

The Milwaukee Journal editorialized at the time that the choice plan was “badly conceived and possibly unconstitutional,’' appealing to “Milwaukee parents who have more will than wallet.’' The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the local teachers’ union, argued that the private schools, unlike the public, would not be accountable to the taxpayers who pay for them. Herbert Grover, then-superintendent of the state department of public instruction, referred to choice schools as “souped-up day care,’' even though several had been around for decades.

But opposition to the Milwaukee plan on the part of an entrenched education establishment was predictable. Less predictable was the skepticism of such school-choice advocates as Myron Lieberman. In his book Public Education: An Autopsy, the prominent education consultant writes, “The Milwaukee plan is likely to turn out poorly because it is not a competitive market system of education.’'

Lieberman argued that the small and (to his mind) severely underfunded plan was almost designed to fail, after which choice critics would bombard the airwaves with “see, I told you so’’ pronouncements. And, indeed, this prognostication almost came to pass in the plan’s first year, when one choice school closed and others struggled to remain solvent.

But by 1993, the same year Lieberman’s book appeared, the worst of the storm had passed: The three largest choice schools--Bruce Guadalupe, Harambee, and Urban Day, which collectively enroll about 70 percent of all the city’s choice students--were financially secure with increasing enrollments, and five new schools had joined the program. (These schools must agree to accept the state tuition voucher as payment in full; they may not, under law, charge parents any additional fee.) Choice, it appeared, was here to stay, even if on a limited scale. The critics and skeptics, choice advocates now say, underestimated the determination of parents to make the concept work--to have schools for their children in which their own voices could finally be heard.

If choice parents were largely invisible in their old public schools, they are visible everywhere in their new schools--in the corridors, in the office, and even in the classrooms, where they sometimes work as aides. In fact, the choice schools are, for the most part, parent-run; parents sit on the boards and head up committees.

Bob Rauh, the principal of the all-black Urban Day School, the city’s largest choice school with 256 program students out of a K-12 student population of 597, says his school has an open-door policy when it comes to parents. “We’re happy to have parents sit in on their children’s classes anytime they so choose,’' he says.

Rauh, a former Jesuit Volunteer Corps worker whose office is literally a desk posted in the middle of the hallway, believes that the very ACT of making a choice has transformative power. “You’ve got to understand that many of our parents have never been able to choose anything before,’' he explains. “While every suburban family exercises choice--get transferred in your job, and the first thing you do is check out the best school districts--a lot of our parents can’t choose where they live, what hospital they go to. They’ve never been able to take ownership of anything until this point. So being able to choose their own school is a very powerful thing. Our parents grow tremendously in terms of responsibility, wanting to go back to school, to get involved in the community. And it all starts with their involvement in school.’'

But Rauh insists that anyone wanting to understand choice needs to talk to parents, not to him. Someone like Irma Walton, a mother with three daughters at Urban Day. Her story is typical of many choice parents.

Walton remembers how her son, now in high school, had become discouraged to the point of despondency in public elementary school. He never had homework and was making no apparent progress in reading or math; nevertheless, she was told at teacher conferences that he was “doing well.’' Alarmed by the discrepancy, she made arrangements to sit in on her son’s classes--this, she says, involved securing a series of permissions--so that she could see for herself what was going on.

“As a parent,’' Walton recalls, “you could see right away that they weren’t really teaching our kids. If the kids were disruptive, the teachers didn’t stop to gain control; they just kept on going with the curriculum. If the kids got it, fine; if they didn’t, well, they just didn’t. So I pulled my son after the 5th grade and put him into Urban Day, where there were no more than 23 kids in a class. For the first part of the year, he was in a shell--his self-esteem had been going way down--but his whole attitude changed when he saw how everyone here cared about him.’'

When the parental-choice bill was first proposed, many educators worried that vouchers would skim the best students from the public schools. But, as Walton points out, the opposite has happened. “Parents whose children are doing well have no problem with the Milwaukee public schools,’' she says. “A lot of them got their kids in the best specialty and magnet schools. It’s those parents whose failing children are stuck in failing schools who are angry at the system. These parents call me and say, ‘I’ve talked to the teachers, the principal and get nowhere; they won’t give me satisfactory answers.’ All I can do is refer them back to the school to try again because, in a public setting, who do you go to? No one knows. Here, you always know who to go to.’'

The clear implication is that public schools, at least those that serve the very poorest, too often set parents and children adrift in anonymous institutions. It’s the private choice schools, and not the public schools, that offer a caring community.

In one respect, this makes for an interesting twist. Choice critics have long insisted that vouchers were fated to create a free-for-all education marketplace in which private school parents would seek what’s best for their own children while remaining oblivious to the needs of others. But these choice parents say something different. They say complacent public schools are too often indifferent to their captive clientele, while their own chosen schools are communities born of freely formed associations.

At Urban Day, classrooms are highly structured environments: Students work through math problems on the blackboard, march through corridors in single file, and obey teachers’ injunctions to “stop talking’’ or “to talk as loudly and clearly as possible.’' Teachers command, it appears, with a minimum of threats and bribery. As at Harambee and Bruce Guadalupe, two other local choice schools, students wear uniforms, and the sense of decorum is almost palpable, as if students have internalized the pledge they stand at their desks and recite: “I will do my best in all my classwork. Á I will listen carefully. Á I will respect myself and help others do their best.’'

In one 7th-grade class, Sister Mary Vaughn, a tiny woman who has taught at Urban Day for 25 years, teaches students how to create kinship charts. “Of course, family involves a lot more than genes,’' she tells the students. “It’s those who care for us in the best possible way who become our parents.’'

When it comes to discipline, Sister Mary says, she never punishes students for misbehavior. “I tell them, rather, that it’s below our dignity to do that,’' she explains, “that our ancestors were better than that. I say ‘we’ even though I’m white because you must be one with them, not up here’'--she raises a flat palm to her forehead--"above them. Otherwise, you’re fostering a savior attitude in which you’re doing for rather than with. That’s the trouble I have with the hierarchical structure of [the Milwaukee public schools]--it fosters a ‘doing for’ attitude.’'

The order, decorum, and talk of self-respect is impressive, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that learning is taking place. In fact, according to a controversial state-commissioned study of the choice plan by University of Wisconsin political science professor John Witte, the difference in student achievement between public and choice schools, as measured by standardized tests, is almost negligible.

But Sister Mary, like everyone associated with the choice schools, takes fierce exception to Witte’s findings. She prefers to emphasize that 96 percent of Urban Day students (92 percent at Harambee and 98 percent at Bruce Guadalupe) went on to graduate from high school, as opposed to the local public school figure of 65 percent. Furthermore, she insists (as does Principal Rauh) that Witte failed to take into full consideration the fact that choice students typically enter their schools a year or two behind average public school students in terms of basic skills and, therefore, need additional time to make up deficits.

“These students did not develop poor work habits overnight, and we can’t correct them overnight,’' Sister Mary says. “It takes time to overcome a lack of skills, to overcome a whole sequence of people who have told you that you can’t do anything right. But by the second year they’re here, the difference in these kids is like night and day. Their ability to rise, to go on in spite of difficulties, is tremendous. If I didn’t have a deep belief in these families and their children, I couldn’t go on.’'

She recalls how she once rebuked a father for hollering at his daughter at school and dragging her through the corridor. The man apologized and then said he sometimes got carried away because he didn’t want his daughter to end up as he had--unable to read even though he had graduated from the Milwaukee school system. Because of experiences like this, Sister Mary supports the expansion of the choice program to Milwaukee’s private religious schools. There simply aren’t enough nonreligious private schools, she says, to fulfill the needs of the city’s poor.

As to whether that expansion could harm the public schools by creating massive flight, Sister Mary feels just as certain. “No school system should be threatened by a program that’s working,’' she says. “You have an obligation to study from it, to borrow from it. The point is this: Nothing with merit will destroy anything else, unless it deserves to be destroyed.’'

Small but singular, Milwaukee’s choice plan has, since its implementation in 1990, been studied by policymakers interested in establishing voucher plans in their own communities and states. But the author of the original bill, the now-prominent Northside Assemblywoman Polly Williams, believes that far too many students of the plan fail to understand its grassroots nature. Its passage, she explains, was no legislative miracle but rather a matter of disenfranchised parents “going to board meetings, lay-ins, sit-ins, die-ins.’' For politicians, choice is too often a fashionable idea with an indeterminate shelf life. For the black community, it’s a chance for people to seize control of their educational destinies.

Williams, a favorite of The Wall Street Journal and a folk hero in Milwaukee’s black community, has been called everything from a neo-conservative to a black nationalist. (She’s marched with militant ex-Black Panther Michael McGee.) But she herself disdains all labels, saying only that she’ll continue to fight for choice until “they carry me out.’'

Her own frustration with the Milwaukee public schools reached a breaking point with the school desegregation policies of the late 1960s when, as she tells it, the education power brokers “told’’ black parents that their children would have to “chase’’ white kids to the suburbs if they wanted an equal education. Why, an indignant Williams asked--and this is the question choice parents continue to ask--should black kids have to be exiled from their own communities to get a decent education? She answered her question by sending her own children to Urban Day School, though as a single mother briefly on welfare she couldn’t always pay the full tuition.

“A lot of us parents were tired of hitting our heads on a stone wall, trying to get the school system to do right by our children,’' Williams says, as she dutifully folds fliers in her office. “It’s not that I think the public school system can’t be changed, but I don’t think we have to sacrifice the lives of our children while waiting on that system. Because the system just won’t turn over and do right. The teachers’ union will fight any kind of change that will reduce its power. So we shouldn’t wait. After all, these people getting the big paychecks’'--here Williams is referring to Milwaukee’s public school administrators and teachers--"have already moved their children out of the public schools. Yet, they’re having a fit because our parents are doing what they’ve already done--leaving.’' (A recent study found that 32.9 percent of the city’s public school teachers send their children to private schools, compared with 23.9 percent of all Milwaukee families.)

Time and time again, Williams suggests that the education establishment objected to choice not out of a concern for black children but because it feared losing money and jobs. If this weren’t the case, she wonders, then why did the state pay $10,000 for an inner-city black child to attend a white suburban school through the desegregation plan but only $3,200 for the same child to stay in the city at a private choice school?

“I’ll tell you why,’' she says. “The price is higher the whiter you get. Our children are valued more if they get up at 5 a.m., standing out in the dark and cold, so they can be bused to some faraway place where no one teaches them anything. [The white establishment] controls everything. White bus companies, white businesses, white suburbs--they get millions upon millions on account of Chapter 220 [the now 25-year-old desegregation plan]. Do you think that money goes to poor people? And then, when you talk of empowering poor people, white people say, ‘That’s fine, as long as we do the empowering.’ They love to label our children at-risk because they know there’s money in our poverty and misery, in social programs that employ the white middle class. Now they’re saying the choice plan is creaming the ‘best poor,’ but you never heard that before choice. There was no ‘best poor.’''

Williams has been interviewed on these subjects many times before, but her anger at the education establishment seems fresh, raw, and unrehearsed. It’s as if all of her reserves of patience have been exhausted. Maybe they have.

“What are the public schools accountable for?’' she asks. “What good is all this talk of accountability if a child goes there for 12 years and then comes out unable to read and write? Why, with all of these rules, requirements, and resources, is the product so inferior? It’s because they don’t care! Yet, whenever we talk about parents taking charge, they talk about how stupid parents are--'Well, they’ll all be going to the David Koresh school'--as if parents don’t know the difference. They’re insulting our intelligence. And if a parent chooses Koresh, that’s a parent’s decision. I don’t agree with it, but I don’t agree with what the bureaucracy is doing either: sending our children to some faraway school where no one teaches them anything so that they can come home exhausted at 7 p.m. Is that a good decision?’'

Williams pauses to catch her breath. “They’d love to kill this little preemie because they know it’s working. As long as parents and not bureaucrats are making the decision, it’s working.’'

Williams insists that it is the parents--not public school officials--who are finally accountable for their children’s education. Her point is clear: Parents know a lot more than they think they do and certainly a lot more than the “experts’’ think they do. And realizing this renders them fully capable of making intelligent choices.

So what kind of choices have Milwaukee parents made so far? According to John Witte, the state evaluator, they are far from monolithic. “The most important conclusion to be drawn about the schools in the choice plan is that they are diverse,’' Witte writes. “They serve different populations; their approach to education varies considerably.’'

To an extent this is true. Two Montessori schools and a Waldorf school now accept a small but growing number of choice students, as do two alternative high schools enrolling adolescents with an array of social and behavioral problems. And one of the original choice schools, the Woodlands School, is in fact a progressive school in the experiential, child-centered Deweyan tradition. Activities are project-based. Classrooms and corridors are virtually wallpapered with student work.

Nonetheless, the three largest choice schools, enrolling more than 650 of the nearly 900 1994-95 student participants, emphasize discipline, basic skills, and direct instruction. They are “traditional’’ in the sense that teachers determine what students are to learn; they consider the whole notion of the teacher following the students’ interests to be pandering at best, an invitation to failure at worst. Their students, they say, have profound deficits that must be addressed head-on. As one principal put it, “We’ve got to structure time to make every minute count.’'

At Harambee School, which emerged out of the civil-rights movement in the late 1960s (Harambee means “pull together’’ in Swahili), “open’’ classrooms were actually tried in the mid-'70s. But, according to the school’s principal, Sister Callista Robinson, they were a dismal failure. She explained that the majority of her students were the poorest of the poor, the very lowest in terms of academic accomplishment, and that structure and discipline were essential to their growth.

“Some of our children,’' Sister Callista says, “come to us so far behind that we have to spend the first year settling them down. So we have very strict classroom rules.’' She pauses thoughtfully and then winces, as if she has just seen a rodent skirt across the floor. “I have to have order,’' she adds. “I just can’t stand chaos.’'

Most of Harambee’s classrooms, particularly in the upper grades, are sparsely furnished. The students sit in straight rows, the limbs of the larger boys and girls spilling out of their too-small desks. The teachers’ desks, typically at the front of the room, are so tidy that you almost expect to see an apple shining on the corner of the table top. There is little in the way of extraneous clutter; everything in these classrooms has an instructional or moral purpose: science and language posters, portraits of African-American heroes. There seems to be an ongoing war against distraction here.

Still, in one 8th-grade class, a boy slouches at his desk, half-asleep. He’s apparently oblivious to the teacher parading about with textbook in hand or the school principal peeking into his classroom. Sister Callista frowns, snaps a heel on the wooden floor, and then--as the boy blinks awake--gives him a look that could wilt a rose. He straightens up.

Later, walking down the corridor, Sister Callista says, “We don’t feel that just because a child ishaving problems at home he has a right to be disruptive. We try to make them take responsibility for their actions.’'

That is no throwaway line. It’s a statement about the indispensability of high expectations--and the evils of low ones--that resound through the entire choice movement. Too many parents at too many schools have, like Urban Day’s Irma Walton, seen their children go without homework and make no academic progress. They have concluded that the public schools simply could not bring themselvesto demand much of their children. Of the middle-class children attending the magnet or specialty schools, yes; but of their own children locked into the worst neighborhood schools, no. They might get a multicultural curriculum, or pleasant smiles, but they would not, so the perception was, learn how to read and write.

“The attitude,’' Polly Williams says, “is ‘I’m not going to put this on you ‘cause you come from a horrible home.’ It’s not love, it’s patronizing.’'

Ironically, then, choice schools like Harambee have, at least superficially, much in common with an older generation of public schools to which they are now alternatives. For Americans like to think, not necessarily with a great deal of accuracy, of the “good old’’ public school as a place of discipline, respect, and basic learning--the very values many choice schools strive to purvey.

Apromi-nent proponent of choice, Walter Sava directs the southside Hispanic agency that runs the Bruce Guadalupe School. “It’s enabled us to do all of this,’' he says, indicating in a sweeping gesture the school’s sparkling new facilities. The sprawling United Community Center includes an art gallery, a drug-rehabilitation center, a Mexican restaurant, and the school.

Referring to a California progressive school he’d read about, he says, “It’s ‘loosey goosey,’ with kids roaming about, doing a little bit of this and that. Now, such a loosey-goosey approach may work very well out in the suburbs with nice middle-class kids who go home to computers, libraries, and summer travel all over the globe. But there’s no way it can work for our kids. Our parents care, but they can’t provide what middle-class parents can. A lot of them are immigrants with rural backgrounds and maybe 6th-grade educations.’'

Sava himself is an Argentine immigrant, who arrived in the United States knowing only a few words of English. In the 1970s, he taught at a college in Waukesha, a city to the west of Milwaukee with a sizable and increasingly vocal Hispanic population. Sava and other Hispanics felt an urgent need for bilingual education, but the Waukesha public schools resisted their entreaties, leading Sava to participate in a boycott. Later, Sava came to believe that the public schools acted, or failed to act, out of sheer ignorance: They simply did not know how to serve the needs of Hispanic children, especially those who spoke Spanish as their native language. What was needed, he determined, were schools that specifically addressed the needs of the Hispanic population--schools that would develop explicit standards that parents could support.

“We want a clear progression in what kids learn,’' Sava says. “So when you finish 8th grade at Bruce Guadalupe, you will know these things, and your parents will know that you know these things.

“It’s all spelled out very clearly,’' he adds, referring to a substantial document called “Scope and Sequence of Curriculum Topics and Benchmarks Grades K-8.’' The curriculum, while bilingual, is neither back to basics in any rote sense nor particularly rooted in Hispanic culture. It is, rather, almost classical in emphasis, like that of one of the old Latin schools. The reading list is all Great Books, beginning in kindergarten with The Owl and the Pussycat and concluding, in the later grades, with such works as Oliver Twist and Julius Caesar. While there’s plenty of memorization and emulation--students are required to recite poems and recreate great speeches--the curriculum also includes a series of bulleted items, such as “detect structure in a variety of literary genres’’ and “keep a journal for recording thoughts and ideas regarding material read.’'

Sava says the curriculum is grounded on the philosophy of consultant Maxine Newsome, which she outlines in her book, A Privileged Class: Choosing an Exemplary Private School and Why You Must. By “privileged,’' Sava explains, Newsome means attainment and not social class; his Bruce Guadalupe students are expected to meet the same standards as the elite.

Principal Allen Nuhlicek came to Bruce Guadalupe after retiring as the principal of a Milwaukee public school. “Here, we use the word love,’' Nuhlicek says almost nonchalantly when asked about the difference between Guadalupe and the public schools. “It’s very difficult to talk about love in the public schools. People will always say they care about children, but in the public schools, when you ask someone to do something extra, you’ll hear, ‘I’m not sure it’s in my job description’ or ‘Will I have to do bus duty?’ This is stuff you deal with all the time.’'

In his experience, Nuhlicek says, union intractability and school-system regulations made it difficult for principals to shape visions for their schools. Although principals had the primary responsibility for their schools’ success, they weren’t even allowed to select their own staff members. In 12 years as principal, Nuhlicek had been permitted to hire just two teachers--and these only on account of a bureaucratic lapse.

“Teachers are prone to follow the union leadership rather than the school leader,’' Nuhlicek says. “If bad teachers feel protected by the union, you can’t make them better. They don’t want to know about their weaknesses and what they can do to redress them. And when a principal tries to fire a teacher, he’s the one who will be on trial, having to document every last little thing.’'

Nuhlicek describes a process that people in the choice movement refer to with monotonous regularity--the annual “dance of the lemons.’' As Nuhlicek tells it, the dance entails a classic Catch-22: The principal has to give a bad teacher an average evaluation--this a yellow card termed a “281T’'--so the teacher can be transferred out to another school. At the new school, the process gets repeated all over again, the teacher foisted upon one accommodating but unenthusiastic “dance partner’’ after the other. To tell the truth and give a teacher a deservedly negative recommendation means subjecting yourself to an interminable review process that’s the educational equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial.

When asked about the curriculum at the Bruce Guadalupe School, Nuhlicek echoes Sava’s words: Students need a certain core of knowledge, which is why the school has adapted E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s notion of cultural literacy.

“Everybody wants kids to ask enriching questions, but how can they ask such questions when they don’t know anything?’' the principal asks. “You have to lead them to water, to interest them in knowledge that will stand the test of time. We want our students to interact with the best authors, the best scientists, the best thinkers. If they’re going to give a speech in class, they should do it with the best orators in mind.

“We want our kids to perform, to show us what they’ve learned,’' he continues, pointing to the back of the curriculum guide where the school’s 12 performance-based graduation requirements are listed. In American Cultures, students must “select significant current events and trace these events to historical occurrences.’' In English Language Speaking, students “give individual presentations from memory of a selected speech and give meaning and context for the speech.’' And so the list goes on.

In one 8th-grade class, Nuhlicek tells students that he’ll throw them a pizza party if a handful of randomly picked students can explain the workings of the electoral college. The students take their turns--one after the other. The first four succeed; but the next falters and then surrenders. The pizza party, they are told, will have to wait for another day.

As at Harambee, classes here are highly structured and yet free of regimentation; there is a sense of order, yet order itself is not the point. The activities are purposeful; the students, enthusiastic participants. In kindergarten, students ACT out roles in a children’s classic, the two teachers having them repeat lines with various intonations, in what is both a drama and an English lesson. In a 2nd-grade classroom, teacher Pedro Mercado transcribes English narratives onto a gigantic pad of paper as fast as his students can speak. When they finish, the students go aboutcorrecting their errors in a collective peer edit, Mercado slashing and dashing about with his marker. On the walls hang dozens of 3-by-5-inch cards blocked with English words. Most of his students are, as yet, Spanish dominant.

Mercado has come to Bruce Guadalupe from the Fratney Street School, a well-respected Milwaukee magnet school with a bilingual program and an intensive multicultural focus. “You call these kids’ parents, and they come,’' he says, explaining why he had made the move to Guadalupe. “They know and support our philosophy.’'

Many choice critics suggest that voucher plans like Milwaukee’s will lead to deepening segregation, as parents select schools that reflect their own racial and cultural backgrounds. As far as Milwaukee is concerned, they seem to be right: Two of the largest choice schools are virtually all-black, and a third is virtually all-Hispanic. But Mercado demurs. “Always worrying about diversity can get in the way of learning,’' he says. “I know what’s going on culturally with these kids because I come from the same background. I know how to teach them.’'

Is the choice plan working? Are students getting a better education than they would be getting at the public schools? Because there is little objective research on the plan except for John Witte’s annual reports to the state (and his critics say they are hardly objective), any judgment must necessarily depend upon parental testimony and subjective impressions. But this does not mean that judgments cannot be made. Participating parents, after all, very much like the plan. And to suggest that this is not a legitimate gauge--that parents lack the wherewithal to judge their children’s schools--is to engage in the sort of condescension that drove many parents from the public schools in the first place.

In any case, the Milwaukee choice plan has accomplished one thing beyond dispute: It has deeply involved long-alienated parents in their children’s schooling. This is of crucial importance, standing as a powerful retort to educators who have long suggested that parents burdened by social and economic problems could devote but minimal attention to educational issues. As Witte states in his fourth-year report, “Based on four years of highly consistent data, the overwhelming conclusion is that choice parents are significantly more involved in the education of their children than [Milwaukee public school] parents.’'

At first glance, these findings are somewhat surprising, for Witte has long been perceived by choice proponents as an opponent, somewhat of a hired gun for the state department of public instruction. They cite a 1990 article in which Witte wrote that decentralization and choice would be in 10 years’ time “simply another set of failed reforms.’'

Of his adversaries, no one has been more vociferous than Harvard government professor Paul Peterson, who, in a series of somewhat vituperative documents, has charged that Witte has severely underestimated the success of the choice plan. In a debate of escalating rancor, Peterson has accused Witte of withholding important data while releasing other data that are “entirely worthless’'; Witte, who describes Peterson as “a pro-choicenik,’' has threatened legal action.

Among the many issues of contention is that old bugaboo: test scores. Peterson has argued that Witte’s evaluation of test score data has failed to account adequately for such factors as income, welfare dependency, and native language, all of which put choice students at an educational disadvantage. (On this last point, Bruce Guadalupe’s Sava concurs, saying his school’s large Spanish-speaking population negatively influenced total test results.) Witte, in turn, claims that these variables would have only a relatively minor effect on scores.

Regardless of how this dispute plays itself out, the fact of the matter is that much of Witte’s report is actually favorable. He notes that the choice plan’s attrition rate, 23 percent in 1994 (roughly the same as the city’s public schools), has been steadily declining. And in more cases than not, he renders positive portraits of choice classrooms and schools.

In the end, Witte acknowledges that the education tide has turned, perhaps forever. He admits that expanded choice and privatization are the wave of the future in Wisconsin and perhaps even the nation. The teachers’ unions and education establishment, he says, are engaged in a losing effort. “They’ll have to stick their fingers in a lot of dikes to prevent these things from happening.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1995 edition of Education Week as A Choice in The Matter

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Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP