As the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka turns 50 this week, don’t expect Annette P. Williams to be wishing it a happy anniversary. After all, it was her disillusionment with school desegregation that stirred her to lead the charge 14 years ago for this city’s pioneering program of private school vouchers.
Not that Williams, who has represented a slice of inner-city Milwaukee in the Wisconsin legislature for 24 of her 67 years, was a great fan of the legally sanctioned segregation that was struck down by Brown. But the one-time welfare mother saw the approach local leaders took to bringing the races together—mainly busing black children to faraway neighborhoods—as an unmitigated disaster for the black community she still represents.
“Desegregation is about the movement of bodies; it had nothing to do with education,” asserts Williams, who goes by her middle name, Polly. “Our focus in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is all about education. It’s not about integration or desegregation. We don’t even think about that.”
Given the demographic reality of Milwaukee today, such views are understandable. With white students down to a small minority—not just in public schools, but in many private ones as well—one-race schools are far easier to find than examples of multicultural mixing in Wisconsin’s largest city. Yet the ghosts of desegregation battles past still linger in the movement Williams helped kick-start here on Lake Michigan’s western shore. References to Brown—and the epic struggle by African-Americans for educational justice that it symbolizes—have become common not only here, but virtually anywhere that the contentious issue of private school choice is on the agenda. Leaders on both sides of the voucher divide are invoking the landmark case to promote their visions, not just in legal skirmishes and policy blueprints, but also in the battle for hearts and minds.
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“Both sides use the same language of equality and opportunity,” says John C. Brittain, a law professor at Texas Southern University in Houston who represented the plaintiffs in a long-running desegregation case in Hartford, Conn.
Behind the words are challenges to rethink old questions about the most promising strategies for achieving the long-cherished goal of equal educational opportunity in America. At stake for both camps is the right to carry the torch of Brown—to lay claim to the dream of a nation where skin color plays no role in a child’s shot at success.
Preaching to a choir of school choice activists here a couple of months ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted that a half-century after the Brown ruling, the problems faced by black children “are still there to see: lack of educational achievement, the denial of educational opportunities, and the economic consequences that follow.” The Mississippi native then reached back further—back to the 19th-century fight to end slavery.
“In my view, opportunity scholarships provide a workable, hopeful alternative to open private schools to low-income and minority students,” he said of vouchers in his March 5 speech at the annual meeting of the Washington-based Black Alliance for Educational Options. “For each of these students, this is educational emancipation.”
Another son of the segregated South, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sounded a similar theme in his concurring opinion in the high court’s 5-4 decision upholding the Cleveland voucher program in 2002. “Today many of our inner-city public schools deny emancipation to urban minority students,” he wrote. “Despite this court’s observation nearly 50 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education that it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education, urban children have been forced into a system that continually fails them.”
And during last year’s bitter debate in Congress over the soon-to-start voucher program for the District of Columbia, parent activists mounted an ad campaign that went so far as to liken voucher foes to Southern segregationists. In a TV spot targeting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., for example, the leader of the parents’ group recalled being reassured by her mother that the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was fighting against those who sought to “stop our race from getting a good education.” Photographs of such champions of segregation as Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace flashed on the screen.
“Senator Kennedy, your brothers fought for us,” Virginia Walden-Ford, an African-American mother who heads the group D.C. Parents for School Choice, said in the spot. “Why do you fight against us?”
National opponents of vouchers were outraged by the ads. In Milwaukee, local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also take issue with the portrayal of vouchers as a modern-day civil rights cause.
“We don’t feel that going the way of vouchers complements Brown v. Board of Education, because it lends itself toward segregation more than anything else,” says Jerry Ann Hamilton, the president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP. “The education system has to be revamped, but we think that going the way of vouchers is leading away from what we had in mind.”
Paulette Y. Copeland, a member of the board of the local NAACP chapter and the vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, also is rankled by suggestions that vouchers are a means of addressing the unfulfilled promises of Brown. Copeland, a literacy specialist for the Milwaukee school district, rejects the argument that vouchers help emancipate poor families by giving them the same type of choices that wealthier families have long enjoyed. “Choice schools are not the same quality as those schools open to the middle-class and rich families,” she contends.
Still, to address social-justice concerns, Copeland suggests that foundations and wealthy individuals that back voucher-advocacy efforts instead give tuition aid directly to low-income families. “Let the public schools deal with the public money,” she says.
Milwaukee’s voucher program has mushroomed from serving 341 students at seven secular private schools in 1990 to supporting 13,231 students in 112 schools, 79 of them religious. The $76 million program has always been limited to children from families within the city limits whose incomes do not exceed 175 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $32,500 for a family of four. In practical terms, that means that the program is open mainly to children of color, a majority of them black.
In Milwaukee, dissatisfaction with the results of busing helped fuel the support for vouchers among black parents and policymakers.
Among the schools spawned by the choice program is the Milwaukee Multicultural Academy, located in a mainly black neighborhood on the city’s north side. Housed in a former synagogue, the school proudly posts its mission at the door: “Developing the Multicultural Mind for the New Millennium.”
But inside the worn-looking, one-story structure, the scene is far less multicultural than Principal Jerry D. Fair would like. When he started the school with 27 students six years ago, Fair was hoping to replicate the racial and ethnic diversity of two public schools in the city that he once headed. “I had this multicultural vision,” he says between interruptions in his cramped office.
As it’s turned out, all but three of his 131 students are black. Many students arrive years behind academically. Seven of the 12 new 5th graders he accepted this year tested at a prekindergarten reading level, he says. As the president of an association of black-run independent schools in Milwaukee, Fair is committed to strengthening schools run by and for African- Americans. Yet he hopes to move his school someday to a less homogeneous neighborhood, so his multicultural vision could be realized. “Diversity is just really an important thing for me,” he says.
From the start of the choice program, opponents have complained that it would worsen school segregation in a city long divided by race. The NAACP made such a prediction, for example, in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the 1995 state law that expanded the program to religious schools.
A 2002 study by Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent who is now a leading national advocate of school choice, found that compared with students in the city’s public schools, a slightly lower percentage of youngsters in voucher schools in 2001-02 were in “racially isolated” settings. The difference was small, though, with 49.8 percent of students in the participating private schools in such settings—defined as having at least 90 percent either minority or white enrollment—compared with 54.4 percent in public schools. In general, the study said, students in participating religious schools were less likely to be racially isolated than in the secular schools, many of which are all-black or nearly so.
"[T]he data suggest that including religious schools in a voucher program targeting low-income families has contributed to more integration in private religious schools than in the Milwaukee public school system,” says the analysis co-written by Fuller, who is now a professor at Marquette University here.
Critics of the choice program are skeptical of such conclusions. Jennifer Morales, an outspoken voucher opponent on the Milwaukee school board, dismisses the numbers as “ridiculous.” “The private schools are not integrated,” she says. “I don’t think they’re any more integrated than we are.”
Whether or not that’s true, says Fuller, discussions of racial balancing in the schools have been made moot in his hometown by the steady decline in the white population. In the 105,000-student Milwaukee public schools, just 15 percent of students were white as of 2002-03, down from 26 percent a decade earlier. Sixty percent were black; 17 percent were Hispanic, up from 10 percent a decade earlier. Statistics on the demographic breakdown of participants in the voucher program are not available.
“While integration is still the ultimate goal, the reality for most black students in inner-city America is that they’re not going to be in integrated schools,” Fuller says. “So the question is, how are they going to be educated?”
The Rev. E. Allen Sorum, a white Lutheran minister whose church runs a school in a north-side neighborhood that has become nearly all black, offers one answer to that question. The school’s enrollment has shifted to the point that the only white students for the past 15 years have been children of school staff members. But despite the lack of integration, Sorum sees his school as dispensing tools youngsters can use to break down racial barriers later in life.
“The world is racist,” he tells the 110-student school’s combined 7th and 8th grade class during a recent discussion of the voucher program. “But God’s given you great gifts so you can make God look good in the world. If you’re a highly educated, God-loving, righteous-preaching Christian, you’re going to dispel whatever prejudices other races have when you go out into society.”
Without the $5,882 tuition vouchers that the state-run program provides, Sorum figures that Garden Homes Lutheran School would have shut down two years ago. Instead, the school is on a growth spurt that will quicken next year, when it moves across the street into a new facility being added onto the church. At that point, the old school building will be turned over to a Montessori public school that now occupies two classrooms in the building.
That arrangement is part of an unusual partnership Sorum has forged with public school educators not only to share space, but also to work jointly to promote the educational options in their neighborhood. Door to door and on street corners, they hand out brochures promoting the “Garden Homes Community of Schools"—the Lutheran school, the Montessori program, and a public elementary school, as well as a public high school and a Baptist one. The goal, Sorum says, is to serve families and build up the community.
The promotion is needed in part because of the legacy of desegregation, says Kenneth Johnson, a member of the Milwaukee school board who represents the Garden Homes neighborhood. “We have 30 years of conditioning saying the school in your neighborhood is no good,” says Johnson, a supporter both of the voucher program and of a neighborhood schools initiative that the district started in 2000 to reduce busing. “That’s so misguided.”
Terry McKissick, the African-American principal of the nearby Garden Homes Community School, has canvassed the neighborhood with Sorum to talk up his 350-student public elementary school, in the hope of eventually reaching his 500-pupil enrollment target. “What I can see happening now is going back to the ’50s and ’60s style of education: Children walk to school, families know each other, and parents participate in school events,” McKissick says. “When they brought in busing … you were integrating schools, but you were breaking up communities.”
A cornerstone of voucher critics’ argument against the choice program is that participating private schools are not required to administer standardized tests or to make the results public. “Rod Paige, the last time he was here, talked about voucher schools helping to close the achievement gap,” Copeland says. “We don’t know that. We have no idea if the children in these schools are learning anything, because they’re not accountable.”
Howard Fuller worries that 'the war' over vouchers has divided people who should be working together to improve the schools.
Don’t try telling that to Yvonne Ali, the founder and executive director of the Agape Center of Academic Excellence, a nonprofit organization that runs a child-care center and K-8 school on the north side. Ali’s more than 320 students include about 145 children in the voucher program and roughly 175 whom the school contracts with Milwaukee district to educate. Because of the school’s connection to the district, Ali is required to administer the same tests the public schools give. But for both groups, she receives thousands of dollars less per pupil than is spent in the public school system. Ali sees that arrangement as a form of discrimination that is hurting independent, black-run schools such as hers.
“I’m straddling the two worlds, and I’m in an accountability situation that says I must produce,” she says. “We’re constantly trying to do as much or more as any public school would do, and we still receive less money. It’s still separate, but it is not equal.”
Still, Ali says she does not think of the vouchers as a civil rights issue, in part because the program was not set up to serve only minority children. Enrollment at her own school is almost all black, but that is because of who chooses to enroll, she says, not by design. “We have some of the opponents of school choice saying that it’s still separation—it’s for all minority children—which is false,” Ali says of the voucher program. “It’s for economically deprived children.”
Polly Williams, the legislator, says poor children and their education have always been her chief concerns. And just as she criticized supporters of desegregation for overlooking such youngsters’ best interests, she has begun leveling similar charges against some in the choice movement. She sponsored the bill that extended the voucher program beyond secular schools, and says she doesn’t regret it. But she worries that the new facilities popping up at some religious schools around town are signs that the program may be losing its focus.
“This was not intended to be a building program,” Williams says. She also contends that religious school leaders and other proponents of choice are seeking legislative adjustments to the program that are “driven more to support the building of new schools as opposed to the needs of the child.”
Among them is legislation to lift a cap that limits participation in the choice program to roughly 15 percent of the city’s public school enrollment. While many other choice advocates can’t understand Williams’s stance, she says she views the proposal as a form of tinkering that could spur other changes that would shift the focus beyond city children from low-income households. “The Catholic schools are the ones who want a lot of these changes,” she says.
One school pushing to remove the cap is Messmer High School, a Roman Catholic school where most teachers and administrators are white, but whose student enrollment is now 91 percent black. Since Messmer began accepting vouchers in 1998, the school’s enrollment has risen from 307 to 545, and the share of youngsters using the tuition aid has grown to 73 percent. Indeed, the choice program has been such a help to the school that its new gymnasium is named the Gov. Tommy G. Thompson Athletic Center, for the former Republican governor of Wisconsin who signed the program into law.
Yet Messmer High Principal Jeff R. Monday says observers are wrong to assume that at Messmer and other religious schools, “the physical expansion is being done with choice money.” At his school, he says, the expansion was in the works well before the school entered the program. “Every dime that went into expanding the school facilities was money that was raised privately,” he says. “So to say that the school is more concerned with building than kids is absolutely false.”
For his part, Fuller says he is saddened by the internecine disputes within Milwaukee’s choice community. More important, he is troubled by the bitter rift between voucher supporters and opponents, which he says detracts from the determination that both groups share to continue the work begun by the crusaders against segregated schools.
“If we didn’t have to spend so much money, time, and energy on the fight to just exist, we could be using those resources to make the schools better,” Fuller says. “There are people on both sides of the issue who should be working together who aren’t because of the war. That’s the tragedy of the whole thing, but I don’t see that changing.”
Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Hearts and Minds