Milwaukee voters shifted the balance of power on their school board last week, turning the majority that supports the city’s voucher program into a minority.
All five of the school board members who stood for re-election on April 1 are backers of the 13-year-old state-enacted program that allows 11,000 children from low-income families to use state money to attend private schools. Of the five, four kept their seats and one, board President John Gardner, lost his.
The results set up two blocs: four members who back the voucher program and four who oppose it. Former high school principal Tom Balistreri, who defeated Mr. Gardner with 59 percent of the vote, did not discuss his position on the issue, but was backed by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, a vocal critic of the program.
The contest marks yet another in a series of such shifts for the board of the 105,000-student district. The voucher- supporting bloc gained the majority in 1999, then lost it in 2001, and regained it last May.
Because the voucher program is run by the state, the Milwaukee school board’s influence over it is largely symbolic. But even so, observers differed on how the election results should be interpreted.
Howard L. Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University and a former Milwaukee schools superintendent, believes the voucher issue was not the driving force behind the school board contests. The topic got much less attention in debates and campaign material than did such issues as teacher qualifications and benefits and the district’s projected budget deficit, according to Mr. Fuller, a leading advocate of vouchers.
But regardless of what issues drove voters to cast their ballots, he said, school choice sparks such strong feelings that advocates on both sides will view the election results through their own distinctive lenses.
“The whole struggle around choice in Milwaukee remains intense, and everyone looks for signs that we won or lost,” he said. “It’s a continuing battle.”
‘Need to Unite’
Mr. Fuller said support for the voucher program at the state level is what really matters, since the Wisconsin legislature created and finances the program. Last year’s statewide elections bolstered support for vouchers in the state capital, he said.
He saw that support echoing in last week’s state supreme court contest, in which a candidate who was a vocal voucher critic was defeated by Patience D. Roggensack, an appeals court judge who has written that she believes the Milwaukee voucher program is constitutional.
John Tries, an independent political consultant who was the chief of staff to Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, John O. Norquist, said the symbolic power of having a school board majority aligned for or against the voucher program can prove potent.
“When the board either enunciates a policy or, through individual statements or through their lobbying efforts opposes [vouchers], that has an impact,” he said. “Just as electing a board that was favorable [to vouchers] was important, this, going the other direction, is equally important.”
In addition, he said, since the election creates a majority of members backed by the teachers’ union, it enables the union to “regain the upper hand” on issues ranging from benefits for its members to charter schools, vouchers, and privatization.
But vouchers, charters and privatization are not at the forefront of the union’s agenda, according to its officials. In a district facing a projected $40 million deficit in fiscal 2004 on an annual budget of $1.1 billion, money tops the list of pressing issues, they say.
“What I see, what I hope for, in the results of this election, is the chance to bring together a board that has been divided and still is,” said Bob Lehmann, the president of the MTEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “There is a need to unite, to go to [the state capital of] Madison and do what we can to get adequate funding for the students in this district.