Blocked by Court, Milwaukee's Voucher Program Gets Reprieve
A last-minute bailout by private donors may allow about 2,000 children here to attend religious schools despite a legal roadblock to a controversial expansion of the city's school-voucher program.
More than 200 students had already begun the school year at religious schools, planning to use state vouchers for tuition, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court halted the program on Aug. 25 with a temporary injunction. The ruling sent many parents scrambling to find alternatives.
Last week, the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and other local donors announced that they had raised $1.5 million to allow all the parents in the program to keep their children in religious schools--at least for now. Supporters said they would need additional money to keep the children in school for the whole year.
The extension of Milwaukee's existing private-school-voucher program to include religious schools has drawn fierce opposition since Gov. Tommy G. Thompson signed the changes into law in July. Those changes increased the number of students who could participate from 1,000 to 7,000 and added about 80 religious schools to the program.
Critics argue that using government money for tuition at religious schools violates the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions and that the program would spell doom for the city's public schools.
Though the private-sector rescue may keep the program afloat this year, the legal challenges remain, and the future of the country's most extensive experiment with private school vouchers to date remains uncertain.
Supporters of the expansion range from the Republican governor to the city's Democratic mayor to the former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools. But many legal experts predict that the issue likely will not be decided until it has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. (See related story, page 18.)
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association are leading the efforts to quash the program.
The teachers' union claims the plan would cost the 100,000-student district about $17 million this school year because of lost enrollment and other factors. The losses in the program's second year, when up to 15,000 students could participate, would be far greater, said Richard Perry, the union's lawyer.
On the other side is the Institute for Justice, a Washington advocacy group that promotes private school vouchers. The institute represents Parents for School Choice, a local grass-roots organization that has intervened as a defendant in the lawsuit challenging the expansion.
Gov. Thompson has hired Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel in the ongoing Whitewater investigation and a former U.S. solicitor general under President Bush, to help defend the voucher program.
James Doyle, the Democratic attorney general of the state, has said he is capable of defending against the lawsuit.
But, in a separate lawsuit filed before passage of the expanded program, Mr. Doyle argued against using the Milwaukee vouchers for religious schools.
That earlier suit was dismissed, but Gov. Thompson has said he believes Mr. Starr will help defend the expanded program more vigorously.
The state supreme court is not expected to ACT on the case again before next month.
While the legal experts on both sides prepared for the next battle, many parents and supporters here vowed that with or without public money, the choice program would survive.
Zakiya Courtney, the director of Parents for School Choice, said the local group is doing whatever it can to ensure that low-income parents who have placed children in religious schools won't get stuck with the bill.
She said many schools are trying to raise money through their parishes. "We're asking people to come together for an emergency."
This school year, the Bradley Foundation will donate about $800,000 outright, in addition to $200,000 offered as matching funds to spur other donors, said Michael Joyce, the foundation's president.
Mr. Joyce made the announcement at an emotionally charged meeting Sept. 30 at Holy Redeemer, a Pentecostal church on the city's north side. More than 200 parents packed a church meeting room to discuss the program's future, and the good news brought cheers of "hallelujah."
An aggressive fund-raising campaign led by another local group, Partners Advancing Values in Education, had raised $465,000 by last week, members of the group said. The organization runs a privately financed scholarship program that operates much like the state's voucher plan.
That money should be enough to cover at least half the tuition this school year for students attending religious schools under the state program, said Dan McKinley, the group's executive director. But it was unclear last week how supporters would come up with enough money to see all the children through the whole year.
Most of the families in the program cannot afford to pay tuition themselves. Participation is limited to families with incomes below 175 percent of the federal poverty line--about $26,500 a year for a family of four.
Uncertainty at Schools
Religious schools last week shared the uncertainty and confusion that troubled hundreds of families.
At Blessed Trinity School, a K-8 Roman Catholic school, almost half the school's 170 students are in the state program, which would provide vouchers of $3,600 a student per year. Schools in the program would receive payments directly from the state four times a year.
But now, Principal Jane Uebelher doesn't know whether she'll see any of that state money.
Unless the Archdiocese of Milwaukee can help her out, she said, parents who want their children to remain in the school may have to pay part of the tuition. Ms. Uebelher said last week that she had already discussed payment plans with some families, but that others had already backed out.
Tamara Brown is one of many Milwaukee parents hoping she won't have to quit.
The 26-year-old single parent and college student said she doesn't have good memories of her own experiences in Milwaukee's public schools. She said she got lost in the system.
So when the opportunity came along to send her 6-year-old daughter to a parochial school under the expanded choice program, she jumped at the chance.
Ms. Brown said her daughter will get the attention she deserves in the smaller classes at the Catholic school she is attending.
Like many parents in the program, Ms. Brown chose a Catholic school, even though she and her family are not Catholics. They attend a Baptist church.
But Ms. Brown said she sees no conflict. "I'm not a Baptist, I'm a Christian," she said. "So if they can teach my daughter about doing the right thing on an everyday basis, that's what I'm looking for."
Over and over, parents who support the voucher program said the public schools are too large and impersonal.
"We're dealing with people who treat our school system like a factory," said Ms. Courtney of Parents for Public Schools. "We know what's best for our kids--not some bureaucrat on a computer."
The public schools have taken some hard knocks during the debate over expanding the voucher program.
The district's defenders say much of the criticism stems from unfounded attacks by people who want vouchers to look like the only good option.
Mary Bills, the school board's president, predicted that the schools will ride out the criticism.
"We've had more public school choice than probably any other district for the past 20 years," she said last week. The voucher program "is irrelevant to the reforms we have been working on for over five years--and that are beginning to pay off."
Wendell Harris, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the expansion, said some parents have been duped by claims of private school superiority.
Mr. Harris, who has two children in the public schools and does volunteer work in the district, said the loss of families to the voucher program will leave the underfunded schools in a worse predicament.
"We'll just educate a very small minority and leave the majority out to fend for itself," he said.
But supporters of the expanded program say the vouchers would help the public schools.
"Maybe," said Ms. Uebelher, "they've just been doing too many things for too many kids."