School Choice & Charters

Milwaukee Board Tips In Favor of Vouchers

By Catherine Gewertz — May 15, 2002 3 min read
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A recent election to the Milwaukee school board has created a voting majority that supports the city’s private-school-voucher program, triggering elation among the program’s advocates and worry among public school loyalists.

The addition of Barbara Horton, a former high-ranking administrator in the city’s school district who now runs a school in the voucher program, means five people on the nine-member board now favor the 12-year-old, state-enacted program that uses public funds to send 10,000 children from low-income Milwaukee families to private schools. They also have expressed willingness to consider privatizing some of the district’s schools.

The new majority is viewed as supporting Superintendent Spence Korte’s attempts to bolster accountability through added assessments. The five board members also back his efforts to decentralize the district by restoring more authority to principals and allowing more children to attend neighborhood schools.

The addition of Ms. Horton, an African-American, also created—for the first time—a Milwaukee school board with a majority of African-American or Hispanic members. In a district where 83 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, that change was viewed by activists as important in ensuring representation of all sectors of the community.

Choice a Key Issue

But the driving issue in the April 2 election was school choice. During the campaign, the two candidates painted differing pictures of what a school board should be.

Ms. Horton, who served as Milwaukee’s acting superintendent and acting deputy superintendent from 1995 to 1997, insisted that the school board function as a body that ensures good educational opportunities for all students, whether they attend public or private schools. Her opponent, former school secretaries’ union officer Annie Wacker, urged voters to elect her as a way of ensuring that the school board keeps its focus on the 105,000 students in Milwaukee’s public schools.

The election restored to power the pro-voucher majority that first took office in 1999, backed by Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, John O. Norquist. That group made Mr. Korte superintendent, but lost its edge last year when one member lost a re-election bid. Another became a swing vote and later resigned, leaving the board often deadlocked 4-4. That resignation led to last month’s special election.

To some, Ms. Horton’s victory illustrates the political potency of the school choice issue, especially in a year when the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of a publicly funded voucher program in Cleveland.

“It just shows that the issue of school choice can be big enough to determine elections,” said John Tries, an independent lobbyist and political consultant and former chief of staff to Mayor Norquist.

To others, however, the election is more a demonstration of how national issues can influence a local campaign, especially when they are played out in a city seen as a staging ground for educational experimentation.

“Highly organized, well- funded, single-issue interest groups can turn a local race into a showdown referendum on issues that—for all we know—the voters do not consider the main issues,” said Mordecai Lee, an assistant professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The board’s ability to affect the school choice program resides more in the realm of politics than policymaking, because the program was established by the Wisconsin legislature and is run by the state. But observers and analysts said the majority’s strong support delivers a signal to state lawmakers, backing that can be key when state funding decisions are made.

“Barbara Horton’s victory is a decisive fifth vote for the group I think of as the good guys,” said board member John Gardner, a supporter of choice.

School board member and voucher opponent Jennifer Morales resents the emphasis on school choice, saying she worries that the board will lose its focus on public school students.

“Let’s forget trying to prove something on the national scene and prove something to our kids,” she said.

Sam Carmen, the executive director of the 9,000-member Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association that backed Ms. Wacker, said his union is worried about the prospect of privatization. But he said it is too early to tell whether the board factions will butt heads often enough to undermine their effectiveness.

Ms. Horton, for her part, said board members might have to “agree to disagree” on the choice issue.

“I offer a new vision for public education, one that promotes as many educational options for all parents in the city of Milwaukee as possible, and also works to strengthen the public schools, to make them better,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee Board Tips In Favor of Vouchers

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