Milwaukee Proposal on Private Schools Stirs Debate

By Deborah L. Cohen — May 17, 1989 8 min read

Under the banner of aiding low-income urban children and expanding school “choice,” the Milwaukee school board has proposed an unusual program that would allow 1,000 elementary pupils to transfer to selected private schools under contract to the school district.

But it is unclear whether the plan--offered as an alternative to choice proposals by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson that are also pending in the legislature--has enough support to meet either its educational or political objectives.

A number of states allow school districts to contract with private organizations to educate at-risk students, but such programs are typically operated at the high-school level. Both Mr. Thompson’s and the Milwaukee board’s plans are unusual in that they extend the concept of private-school choice to large numbers of elementary-school students.

Supporters of the board’s plan--including Superintendent of Schools Robert S. Peterkin--describe it is a “vehicle for school improvement” that will provide an alternative for pupils who have been unsuccessful in the city’s public schools.

They note that the school district has contracted with private schools since 1982 to offer alternative programs for “at-risk” middle- and high-school students. Last year, the district also began contracting with day-care centers to offer kindergarten and child care for disadvantaged 4- and 5-year-olds. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1988.)

“What was missing was the elementary-school piece,” Mr. Peterkin said.

But some board members and district personnel concede that the plan also constitutes an “offensive” to advance a choice proposal more acceptable than the Governor’s.

The consensus was that, “rather than have it done to us, let’s do something,” said Mary Bills, a board member. “I don’t think anybody embraced it with great enthusiasm as an answer to all our problems.”

“It’s like a fly on the rear of a horse,” she added. “You want to just slap it and get if off and let us get on with the real work that needs to be done.”

An ‘Extended’ System

Governor Thompson’s plan would allow up to 1,000 low-income Milwaukee pupils in grades K-6 to attend any public or nonsectarian private school in Milwaukee county, which includes the city and 17 suburban districts.

The choice plan approved by the Milwaukee board would serve the same number of students, but would be focused on K-8 pupils with a record of low achievement in the public schools.

The plan would allow them to attend five to seven nonsectarian private schools in the city that would be chosen through a contract process and held to standards set out by the school system.

“We would demand that the private schools have a certain quality program before we would contract,” said Douglas Haselow, the district’s director of intergovernmental relations. The private schools would serve as “an extension of the public-school system.”

Unlike the Governor’s plan, the board’s proposal would cover the cost of transfers and transportation through Chapter 220, a program that provides state aid to districts for voluntary desegregation. Estimates of the cost of the program cited by local and state officials range from $800,000 to $2 million.

‘Political Realities’

Both plans signal a shift in strategy based at least in part on political considerations.

Mr. Thompson scaled back his proposal after the legislature rejected a plan last year that would have included religious as well as nonsectarian private schools. He said he modified his proposal in recognition of “political realities.”

And while the board’s plan is predicated on a belief that “a change in learning environment may be beneficial” to low-achieving students, it also reflects a “political consideration” that momentum for choice is growing, Mr. Haselow said.

“With all the emphasis and interest there has been on choice,” he explained, “the board thought we should take the offensive--and this is the kind of plan we think makes sense.”

Ms. Bills said the board hopes to improve educational opportunities for some children by contracting with private schools that “have done a good job in the community.”

But she noted that the board acted in part “to move the issue off the table” and “get on with the kinds of solutions we know would work.”

She cited a need for more early-childhood intervention programs, smaller classes, new curricula, teacher training, and administrative reorganization.

‘Creating Confusion’

Critics, however, maintain that the school board, which has vigorously opposed the Governor’s choice proposals, has chosen a tactic that could backfire.

Donald Feilbach, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, charged that the plan “doesn’t make much sense considering their position previously” and is “creating a lot of confusion.”

“The problem is that nobody knows what the school board believes,” he argued. “If they really don’t believe in a choice plan, they shouldn’t be coming up with one of their own.”

Neither the m.t.e.a. nor the Wisconsin Education Association Council have supported choice proposals advanced thus far.

Doris Stacy, a board member who voted against the plan, argued that advancing it simply to ward off more onerous choice plans “could hurt us in the long run.” Board members should “deal frankly with the politicians,” she said, if they feel choice is not the best way to combat urban schools’ problems.

As “elected officials responsibile for public schools,” she said, ''we should be appealing and working for more classroom space, lower class sizes, more elementary-school counel10lselors,” and other improvements.

Mr. Feilbach said he feared that the plan could be used “as an excuse not to give schools the support they really need.” And he warned that the private schools “are not going to be able to do any better a job than the Milwaukee public schools can if they have the same students and the same resources we have.”

Although at least one Milwaukee public-school teacher would supervise instruction in each private school chosen to participate, Mr. Feilbach also maintained there are “unanswered questions” about whether other teachers would be licensed or represented by his union.

Plan’s Merits Cited

But Mr. Peterkin, who vigorously defended the school board’s plan last week, described it as “one small piece of a larger restructuring pie” that would bolster the education of low-income pupils.

As superintendent of the Cambridge, Mass., public schools, he supported a “controlled choice” plan that allowed movement between public schools and has become a model for other school systems.

“I am not enamored of the kind of choice that is unlimited outside the public sector,” Mr. Peterkin said last week. But he maintained that the Milwaukee proposal is “much different piece of work than the usual public or private voucher.”

Mr. Peterkin said four inner-city, nonsectarian private schools “with a substantial track record in dealing with low-income minority children” first approached the district with a proposal to collaborate.

While there was “a hesitancy to deal with the issue because of an inevitable backlash from critics,” he said, “our feeling is that these schools had evidenced some success with our children.”

He added that the city has had “a great and long history of choice,’' including a voluntary desegregation program that has allowed about 4,300 Milwaukee students to transer to suburban districts and about 1,000 subruban students to tranfer to the Milwaukee schools. The city also has a wide selection of magnet and special-theme schools.

Mr. Peterkin also cited the dis4trict’s history of contracting with private schools for programs for at-risk youth and its new kindergarten contracts with day-care centers.

The superintendent denied that the new choice plan was a “reflex” reaction to the Governor’s proposal, which he maintained has “little chance” of prevailing in the legislature.

Outlook Uncertain

The Governor is also advocating a separate proposal--similar to Minnesota’s voluntary open-enrollment program--that would allow K-12 students statewide to transfer between districts that opt to participate.

Senator Gary George, co-chairman of a House-Senate finance committee, said the panel was more apt to favor a plan limited to Milwaukee because rural legislators fear a statewide plan could force consolidation of small schools.

While the panel’s co-chairmen appear willing to consider the choice issue, however, Mr. Haselow said he had been unable to elicit reaction to “specific components of our plan.”

Mr. George hinted last week that the committee would be more likely to act on such a plan if the teachers’ unions back it and “if there is a meeting of the minds” between the Governor and the school district.

Mr. Haselow, who met with the Governor’s staff last week, said a major stumbling block is Mr. Thompson’s resistance to using state aid to finance the board’s plan.

Thomas Fonfara, a policy advisor to the Governor, said Mr. Thompson opposes funding the program with the Chapter 220 aid intended to provide incentives for intradistrict transfers that promote racial balance. That approach, he said, could “raise some red flags” and adversely affect other school districts that need the aid.

Mr. Thompson also opposes using Chapter 220 money to expand the district’s contracts with day-care centers. And he does not favor targeting the elementary-school program on low-achieving pupils.

“We don’t want this to be a dumping ground for kids who are not succeeding in the Milwaukee public schools,” Mr. Fonfara said.

But he also noted that the board had “put forth a good faith proposal to address the concerns and desires of the administration.” He added: “I wouldn’t say we’re a long way apart because I think we’ve each come a long way.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 1989 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee Proposal on Private Schools Stirs Debate