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Milwaukee’s Choice Program Enlists 391 Volunteers

By Lynn Olson — September 12, 1990 13 min read

Milwaukee--Superintendent Robert S. Peterkin spent the first day of class here last week visiting some of the city’s most troubled neighborhood schools as a sign of his personal commitment to reform.

But that message came too late for the parents of 391 low-income Milwaukee students, who have voted with their feet by pulling their children out of the public schools and sending them to nonsectarian private schools at state expense.

The experimental program, which provides public dollars to give families a choice among private schools, is the first of its kind in the country. Already, it has sparked a legal battle that is being closely watched nationwide.

Opponents of the law claim that it could lead to a dismantling of the public school system and to a resurgence of racial segregation.

But supporters assert that choice will give parents the opportunity to pursue the best education for their children while pressuring the public schools to improve.

Last month, a Wisconsin judge ruled that the program was legal, because the state constitution “does not expressly require that public expenditures be made only for public purposes.” (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

If choice improves the quality of children’s education, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Susan Steingass asserted, “benefit inures not only to a few students in Milwaukee but to our educational system as a whole.”

The fate of the program now rests with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule this fall. The Milwaukee Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a coalition of public-education groups have challenged the law as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the parents of participating youngsters held out high hopes for the program as schools began here last week.

Despite the controversy surrounding the legislation, most of those interviewed said they chose the private schools for traditional reasons: smaller class sizes, more individual attention, better discipline, and heightened parental involvement.

“In the public schools, teachers don’t give your children the personal attention they really need,” said Janet Grice, whose son Melvin will attend 4th grade at the Harambee Community School this fall. “Private schools take the time out to do that.”

Specifically aimed at low-income students, the Milwaukee parental-choice program requires that families have an income less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible.

In addition, no more than 49 percent of the enrollment at participating schools may be made up of students from the program. And no more than 1 percent of the Milwaukee public-school population--or about 980 pupils--may participate in any given year.

A total of 635 youngsters applied to participating private schools this summer, out of approximately 55,000 eligible students.

Schools were required to accept all children who applied, unless they had too few vacancies. In those instances, children were selected randomly in a lottery.

Supporters of the program attributed the low turnout among applicants to continued uncertainty about the program’s future and to negative pub licity. Those students who applied and were not accepted, because of space limitations, were forced to go back to the public schools.

Under the program, the state will pay about $2,500 this year for participating children to attend one of eight private nonsectarian schools. That money, which equals the amount the state gives the school district per pupil, will be deducted from the Milwaukee public-school budget.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Education, a total of 26 private nonsectarian schools were eligible to participate in the program. Officials at several of the schools that declined to participate cited lack of space or low tuition reimbursement as their primary reasons for not becoming involved.

Only one of the participating schools, Service-Employment-Redevelopment--Jobs for Progress, serves high-school students. Five teenagers will participate in that program this year, which contracts with county and local businesses to provide job training. Most of the other schools serve children in preschool through grade 8.

These schools are a far cry from the elitist image of private schools. Many have predominantly black or Hispanic populations with strong roots in the low-income community.

The Harambee Community School--the name means “let’s work together” in Swahili--is located in a former Catholic school on the predominantly black, north side of Milwaukee.

The 21-year-old program was be gun by neighborhood parents during the 1960’s to provide children with a stronger sense of their cultural heritage, said Sister Callista Robinson, the school’s principal.

The back-to-basics curriculum includes Spanish and computer science in grades 3-8. Class sizes are limited to 25 students. Of the 303 pupils in preschool through 8th grade this fall, 86 are attending the school through the choice program.

“What we have to offer is parent participation,” Sister Robinson said in an interview last week. “We have a school board that is comprised of parents from the school who are elected by the parent body, and who take care of policy.” “We require that parents come to parent meetings,” she added. “They must come to parent-teacher conferences. They must participate in the fund raisers that we have. And there are various committees that they can volunteer to be on.”

The Urban Day School, a small, mostly black school founded 23 years ago by parents when their neighbor hood parochial school closed, also tresses parental involvement.

Parents at Urban Day are required to meet regularly with teachers; to sit on committees that decide on staffing, admissions, and curriculum; and to help with fund-raising.

Of the school’s approximately 500 students, about 85 have enrolled through the choice program. Zakiya Courtney, the school’s executive di rector, said that more than 300 stu dents applied but that the school was forced to turn many away be cause of space limitations. On the first day of class, as television crews hovered in the parking lot to film the beginning of the choice experiment, parents and teachers greeted each other in the hallways. And new parents were told that they were welcome in the school at any time. “If I don’t know your mother now or your father now,” Ms. Courtney told the students during a school assembly, “I’ll know them by tomorrow.”'No Excuses’


That’s exactly the kind of message that attracted parents like Freda Curry to the choice program. Ms. Curry, who has two children who will be attending Urban Day this fall, said she chose the school specifically because of its emphasis on par ent involvement.

Until now, two of Ms. Curry’s three children were bused 20 to 30 miles per day to outlying suburban schools as part of Milwaukee’s school-desegregation program.

“I would have loved to have my children at the neighborhood community school, which is seven blocks away,” she explained. “I could have walked to the school. My children could have been home for lunch. But that wasn’t an option for me.”

At the suburban schools, she said, inner-city parents and their children were made to feel like “guests” and were “locked out” of decisionmaking roles.

What the private schools offer parents, stressed Representative Polly Williams, sponsor of the choice bill, is “empowerment.”

“Parents are in control here,” she said. “People like to be where they have some power and authority.”

“There will be no excuse from now on that schools can’t educate low-income children,” she maintained.

For the schools themselves, the program offers a needed infusion of cash. Officials at many of the schools said it costs them approximately $3,300 to educate a child. But they typically charge tuition rates between $650 and $950.

The rest is made up through fund-raising efforts.

The Bruce-Guadalupe Community School on the south side of Milwaukee nearly closed last year because of money problems. But Susana Liston, the school’s business manager, said: “Choice gave us a light. We probably can keep it open with this program.”

Of the school’s approximately 200 students, 20 are participants in the choice program. Over the summer, the school combined with the United Community Center, another predominantly Hispanic school, to stay in business.

While “there is no denying that having more new children is a benefit to us,” Susan Wing, principal of Woodlands School, said, the main reason her school decided to participate in the program was to provide a community service.

“We have a history of working with poor children who’ve come here through other means, and we do it successfully,” she said. “We also have a philosophy which says that we value cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity here."3

Of the school’s 253 children in preschool to grade 8, 28 are participants in the choice program. Unlike some of the other schools, only 25 percent of Woodlands’ students are members of a minority group.

According to Ms. Williams, schools such as Woodlands are an answer to the failure of the Milwaukee public-school system.

A report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute last year found that, despite 12 years of desegregation efforts, the achievement of the city’s black students--who make up approximately 55 percent of the district’s enrollment--remains far be low expectations.

The group reported that black high-school students typically maintain D grade-point averages, often fail more than 25 percent of their courses, and usually score be low average on standardized tests.

The report also charged that the district’s desegregation programs have replaced racial segregation with “economic segregation,” by allowing black students from middle-class families to transfer to suburban schools or to specialty schools within the city, while sending students from less advantaged backgrounds to traditional neighborhood high schools.

Superintendent Peterkin does not contest that there are problems with the desegregation program. Like most traditional programs, he said, it began by closing down schools in black neighborhoods and reopening them as magnet or specialty schools that would attract white students. The overflow of black students were then bused elsewhere around the city and to neighboring suburbs.

As a result of the declining population in outlying, predominantly white areas of Milwaukee, black children are now bused twice as often as white children to meet the goals of desegregation.3

In the past two years, the district has built four schools in the inner city and plans to build four more in an effort to alleviate the problem. Mr. Peterkin also noted that all of the money from a desegregation settlement in 1987 has been invested in full-day kindergarten programs in inner-city schools.

But Ms. Williams maintains that desegregation was “the worst thing that could have happened to our children.”

“What they’re doing is putting the race of my child ahead of the education of my child, and that’s not right,” she said.3

On the first day of school this year, Mr. Peterkin unveiled a five-point, five-year plan for improving achievement in the Milwaukee schools.

Among other emphases, the district will focus on improving attendance, decreasing classroom disruptions, improving reading scores, introducing a multicultural curriculum, ensuring greater accountability at the school site, and removing barriers to parental participation.

Since becoming superintendent two years ago, Mr. Peterkin has also decentralized the school bureaucracy by dividing the district into six “service-delivery areas.” In addition, almost 40 schools have chosen to participate in some form of site-based management.

But in an interview last week, Mr. Peterkin admitted that many parents may not know about the district’s new programs. And he said the district was still trying to recover from its past reputation for cutting parents out of the educational process.

Ms. Williams maintains that the choice program provides the lever age “to force” the public schools to change. “They can no longer sit around and say parents don’t care,” she said. “They’ve been getting away with that for years.”

But Felmers O. Chaney, president of the NAACP-Milwaukee, says, “That’s ludicrous.”

“We have 65,000 black children in this system,” he stated, “and the only thing that you can do is make the system teach the children. You don’t do that just by jerking out 1,000 children who may not even be minorities.”

Mr. Chaney’s organization is one of seven currently contesting the le gality of the choice program in court. They have asked that the program be declared unconstitutional, in part because it calls for the expenditure of public money for private purposes, and because the private schools would not be held to the same standards as public ones.

Herbert J. Grover, state superintendent of public instruction and a staunch foe of the program, warned that it would result in “two systems of education: one accountable, one not accountable; both financed with public resources.”

“These are essentially private, black, racially isolated schools,” he complained. “What happened to Brown v. Board of Education? If we have that condition, can we have white, racially isolated schools?”

Richard W. Collins, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union, predicted that the program could “completely destroy the public school system.”

And Penny Manke, president of the Milwaukee Congress of Parents and Teachers, cautioned that “it’s taking money away from the public schools.”

“We would rather see parents work with the system to improve it,’' she said.

Mr. Peterkin, who does not generally oppose choice, said he was con cerned about several aspects of the existing program, including its funding mechanism.

Also, he noted, a recent memorandum from the U.S. Education Department said that participating private schools do not have to provide special services for handicapped children, be cause federal law does not apply when only state money is being transferred to the schools.

That decision sets a “dangerous precedent” for excluding other children with bilingual or special academic needs, he said.

Choice alone “will not make schools better just as a marketplace concept,” the superintendent added. “You really have to have a vision. But, Ms. Williams argued, “You’re not going to get the public schools to make these changes by themselves.” That view seems to have gathered substantial support here in Wisconsin. All of the black aldermen in Milwaukee, one of three black school- board members, and all of the county’s black supervisors have backed the choice legislation.

In addition, it won the unexpected support of state Senator Gary George, who was pivotal in getting the measure attached as an amend ment to a state budget bill.

Although Mr. George has opposed Ms. Williams on many issues in the past, his senior policy adviser for education, Walter C. Farrell Jr., said that after holding more than 75 focus with members of the black community, the Senator was convinced that Ms. Williams was right. “At that time the results were overwhelming that something need ed to be done,” he said. “We’re in a situation where the education of African-American children in Milwaukee, as it is in many cities, is in a state of crisis.”

Although a modest choice bill “is not the solution,” Mr. Farrell contend ed, “it sent a beacon of hope to low- income black parents and other parents of color to indicate that someone was listening to their concerns.”

But, as Ms. Curry is the first to admit, parents who decided to participate in the program may still see that opportunity vanish.

“As parents, we’re taking an awful strong risk to enroll our children in this program, because it’s not some thing that’s carved in stone,” she said. “We don’t know that the courts will not rule against us. But for me, it’s ... [a risk] worth taking.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 1990 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee’s Choice Program Enlists 391 Volunteers