Ahead of the Curve

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Welcome to public education, Milwaukee-style.


Just north of the city, between the Love Child Liquors shop and a shiny new playground, the 180 students at the Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin file into a timeworn building and climb three flights of stairs to their school on the top floor. When the children, kindergartners up to 5th graders, reach their classrooms, they line up and recite the school creed written by the pioneering Chicago educator for whom the school is named. The students, neatly dressed in their uniforms, shout in unison, their voices echoing off the artwork, poetry, and inspirational slogans that decorate their classroom.

A few miles to the east, next to a busy freeway and across from a clinic for the homeless, the 360 students at Messmer High School are settling in. In the hallways hang portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and, at this Roman Catholic institution, Jesus.

Brother Bob Smith, a Capuchin friar and the school's president, quietly chides a student passing through the hall for wearing a baseball cap, which, along with chewing gum, curse words, and backtalk, is verboten at the school.

Closer to the heart of the city, the 600 students in grades K-5 at the Elm Creative Arts School learn through an arts-driven curriculum. Today, while many are away performing at a concert downtown, a group of 5th graders is sprawled out on a classroom floor piecing together colorful math games. The students work in small teams while big-band music plays on the class stereo.

Welcome to public education, Milwaukee-style. These three schools, scattered throughout the city and featuring vastly different educational settings and philosophies, have one thing in common: public tax dollars.

One is a charter school adopted by the City Council; one is a private, religious school; and one is a magnet school operated by the school district. All three all are part of a growing roster of alternatives available in a city that is ground zero for the school choice movement nationwide.

The definition of public schooling in the United States has changed dramatically in recent years, and nowhere is it changing faster than in Milwaukee. The city's long tradition of forward-looking views on government and politics has provided fertile soil for experiments and innovations in its public schools.

Here, in one place, are schools based on ideas that not too long ago were unheard-of in a U.S. school district: students attending religious schools with public money, a private school that has essentially been hired by the district to become a public school for a year, and a city government that has bypassed the local school board to create its own charter schools.

Decades of Frustration

The choice movement in Milwaukee grew out of decades of frustration with the problems of the public schools including low attendance, dropout rates that have approached 70 percent at some schools, and a frequent lack of student discipline. Too few of the students who do graduate move on to college, many people here say, and too many end up in trouble with the law or stuck in low-skilled, low-paying jobs.

School critics and choice advocates say that years of efforts to address these and other problems have come up empty--to the detriment of the poor students who make up the bulk of the city's enrollment.

"Children have been going to school in war zones, getting murdered literally and academically, and parents, especially poor black parents, have had no choice," argues Howard L. Fuller, a former district superintendent. Now the director of the Institute for the Transformation and Learning at Marquette University here, Fuller is one of the city's leading proponents of school choice.

"This movement came from those parents," he adds. "After 20 years of trying to change schools inside the system, there seems to be no other way."

Vouchers and Charters

The most controversial of the city's experiments with public schooling is the voucher program, which allows 15,000 low-income students to attend private schools. With Cleveland's, it is one of only two such programs in the country.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the use of the vouchers at religious schools, and in November, the U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand. ("'Green Light' for School Vouchers?" Nov. 18, 1998.)

The state-enacted program provides children from families earning less than $29,000 a year vouchers worth nearly $5,000 to attend private schools of their choice.

Milwaukee is also home to a growing number of charter schools, including the first in the country sponsored by a city government operating independently of its school district. Three formerly private schools, sponsored by Mayor John O. Norquist and the City Council, converted to charter status this fall, including the Marva Collins Preparatory School. City officials have several more in the works for the next school year.

In most states, the independent, publicly funded schools are sponsored by local districts, state school boards, or local colleges and universities.

The Milwaukee district itself sponsors one charter school, a 77-student Montessori school housed in an old brewer's mansion downtown. In addition, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Area Technical College are in the process of approving several more charter schools for the 1999-2000 school year.

Parents have other options within the 105,000-student district, notably 18 magnet schools, including the Elm Creative Arts School, which draw students from around the city and neighboring school districts.

And a recent partnership between the district and an independent, private school created yet another form of public education: the contract school. The 500-student, K-8 Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, which serves a predominantly Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrant community on the city's south side, signed a one year contract with the Milwaukee district in the fall. Under the contract, the school essentially joined the district for the year, but officials of the school say they are considering operating as a charter school for the 1999-2000 school year.

Link to Bigger Problems

Mayor Norquist, a third-term Democrat, is hoping that this panoply of options is an answer to one of most vexing problems in his and other older cities: the lack of a sizable middle class. He believes that giving parents more choices in where they school their children might lure back some of the families that have moved to the suburbs.

"The typical school choice program, which has existed here for about the last 35 years, is, if you have money and kids, you just leave town," Norquist says. "People were leaving for the suburbs because of the quality of public schools, and that's not acceptable.

Choice, he adds, has tremendous advantages for parents. "It gives them control over their child's education," the mayor says during an interview at his office in City Hall.

Under the old system, Norquist says, those who didn't have enough money to bail out of the city were left with "a rapidly disappearing parochial school system, very few private schools, and public schools that don't have to worry about your decision." Now, he says, "all that's changing."

Everything seems to be changing in this progressive, industrial city on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Milwaukee, a city of 610,000, is famous as the nation's beer-brewing capital and as the home of the legendary Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It also has a reputation for a free-thinking approach to politics and government. Milwaukee was a bastion of the Progressive movement in the early 1900s and has the distinction of having had three Socialist mayors.

Today, Milwaukee is also a city awash in culture, with a small downtown alive with music and art venues, restaurants, and Flemish-style, neoclassical, and Art Deco architecture.

Here, in one place, are schools based on ideas that not too long ago were unheard-of in a U.S. school district: from religious school vouchers, a private school contracting as a public school, and charter schools.

After an economic lull during the 1980s, when the Midwest was commonly referred to as "the Rust Belt," the city is fighting for a comeback, as evidenced by the construction and renovation crews scattered about the city. But as his colleagues in other cities are finding, Norquist has concluded that a thriving public school system is essential if that comeback is to succeed.

Balancing Options

Some local leaders believe the choice alternatives are vital, both for giving parents alternatives to the traditional public school system, and for spurring that system to improve.

"I'm all for choice and charters," says John Gardner, a school board member since 1995 and a self-described "choice convert." But he notes that, even with the maximum amount of students enrolled in new programs, there will still be some 80,000 students left in the Milwaukee public schools.

"The big question now is how will MPS respond to the crisis," Gardner says. "Will they continue to complain about change and defend the status quo, or will they make improvements to compete? I think for survival's sake, they'll have to improve."

Dan McKinley, the executive director of Parents Advancing Values in Education, a local group that favors vouchers, agrees. "For years, public schools held families captive," he says. "If the system wasn't working for you, it was just too bad."

District officials say that a transformation is already under way. Alan S. Brown, who was hired away from the top job in the Waukegan, Ill., school system to take over the Milwaukee district last August, says evidence of improvement abounds. Test scores are up, the superintendent says. The dropout rate is down, summer school has been restored, and a reading initiative has enlisted hundreds of volunteers to help tutor students.

But he and many others within the district believe that because vouchers and charters siphon money away from the existing system, improvements in the district will be harder to achieve. State per-pupil funding follows students, and the Milwaukee district lost an estimated $22 million--out of a $900 million total school budget--to choice programs this school year. That, says Brown, undercuts the district's efforts.

"I don't understand how you can force a school system to be better by taking its resources away," he says. "I don't know how losing a substantial amount of money will make our schools more competitive." The financial drain, he adds, "puts us in a really difficult situation."

The local affiliate of the National Education Association has also been a fierce opponent of choice programs that it says divert money from the school district. Sam Carmen, the executive director of the 11,000-member Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, also denounces a tendency to blame the district and its teachers for the multitude of problems facing children in Milwaukee.

"Schools are ridiculed by the media, attacked by Howard Fuller, the mayor, and even the governor," he says. "And everyone's talking about the positives of the market approach and competition. But it's not a level playing field."

Mr. Carmen, a longtime labor organizer, points to what he sees as a critical difference between public and private schools. "Children who are the most expensive to educate and the neediest can be kept out or put out" of private and charter schools, he says, while the brightest children and those with the most motivated and sophisticated parents are welcomed.

'The Bottom Line'

That argument doesn't fly at Messmer High School, one of 88 schools participating in the voucher program. Administrators at the school say its students and their parents are anything but elite. Half the students at Messmer use vouchers to pay tuition, and about 70 percent of its students come from poor, single-parent households. Tuition is about $2,800 a year, but only about 20 percent of the students pay it in full.

"Our population is the same as the public school population," Brother Smith says. Yet, he says, it boasts statistics that include low absenteeism, a virtually nonexistent dropout rate, and a high rate of college attendance among graduates. Brother Smith argues that the debate should not be about whether schools are public or private, religious or secular. "The bottom line," he says, "is if students are learning or if they're not learning."

Educators at the Marva Collins School strive for a similar emphasis on achievement. The principal, Robert Raugh, says that "we have high academic expectations, and we praise the living daylights out of students." "My focus is narrow," the principal adds.

The school is one of several around the county based on the principles of Chicago educator Marva N. Collins, who opened her first school in a public-housing project in Chicago in the early 1970s. The schools emphasize self-esteem and self-discipline in the classroom, and offer a curriculum steeped in the classics.

Uncertain Future

While educators at individual schools here are striving to win the battle for better results in the classroom, how far Milwaukee's efforts to redefine public schooling will go may ultimately be determined by politicians at the local and state levels.

A leader in recent years has been Annette Polly Williams, a Democratic state representative and an author of the 1989 voucher legislation.

It is an illustration of how unusual the politics here can be that Democrats like Williams and Norquist are advocates of vouchers and other choice options generally associated with conservative Republicans.

"Our public schools--and we have mostly white teachers in inner-city schools--have been unable to educate our black children," says Williams, an outspoken mother and grandmother who can be as critical of the choice movement as she is of the public school system.

For example, Williams, who is African-American, says she originally intended the voucher program to help mainly black-run schools and low-income students. But today, she contends, vouchers and charter schools mainly benefit white churches, white-run private schools, and white students. "Affluent folks are going to take it all on as their own," she says. "Yuppies who have choices are going to be the beneficiaries now."

Such divisiveness is what magnet school teacher Donelle Johnson, a 31-year veteran of the Milwaukee schools, says she has feared most. She says she can envision a dual private and charter school system, one black, one white, and a community whose loyalty to schools is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.

"Competition will do nothing for Milwaukee schools except take away resources," she says over the din of her 5th grade class at the Elm School, "and it will do nothing to the quality of life in Milwaukee except divide communities."

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Pages 32-36

Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Ahead of the Curve
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