What's Brewing in Milwaukee?
Four years ago, Wisconsin lawmakers became the first in the nation to allow poor inner-city parents to send their children to nonsectarian private schools at public expense. Now, ignoring opposition from the education establishment, they've thrown religious schools and many more students into the mix
Outside the doors of Milwaukee’s Bruce Guadalupe School, one of the original seven nonsectarian schools participating in the nation’s first private school voucher program, you can pick up a tabloid called Welfare Mother’s Voice that says much about the constituency and Zeitgeist of the city’s controversial choice initiative.
The mission statement of Welfare Mother’s Voice reads, “We will no longer remain silent. We will unite and fight for the lives of all mothers and children in poverty. We demand dignity.” Inside are angry stories about disdainful health care workers, deadbeat dads, and the endless string of small humiliations that plague the lives of the very poor. “We’re not going to take it anymore” is the predominant tone.
In more than a few respects, the stories in Welfare Mother’s Voice parallel the stories of the parents participating in Milwaukee’s school choice program. During the 1994-95 school year, these parents received vouchers worth $3,200 each to send their children, some 850 in all, to one of a dozen participating nonsectarian private schools. Participation in the voucher plan is limited to families with incomes within 175 percent of the poverty line—$26,513 a year for a family of four—but the typical choice family gets by on about half that amount.
For the first four years of the plan, 75 percent of the parents were single; 57 percent received federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children. More than 90 percent of their children were eligible for free lunch. Seventy-four percent of the choice students were African-American; 19 percent were Hispanic. At their prior public schools, they were at the very bottom in terms of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Many were classic “problem children,” their parents contacted due to bad behavior almost twice as often as others.
The animus of Milwaukee’s many choice critics is now focused upon the expansion of the voucher plan; state lawmakers voted in June to allow religious schools and as many as 7,000 students to participate, beginning this fall. But in 1990, when the original plan, then limited to 1,000 students and nonsectarian schools, was pushed through the legislature by assemblywoman Annette “Polly” Williams on behalf of her Northside constituents, critics launched a fusillade that is now, five years later, apparently running out of ammunition.
The Milwaukee Journal editorialized at the time that the choice plan was “badly conceived and possibly unconstitutional,” appealing to “Milwaukee parents who have more will than wallet.” The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the local teachers’ union, argued that the private schools, unlike the public, would not be accountable to the taxpayers who fund them. Herbert Grover, then-superintendent of the state department of public instruction, referred to choice schools as “souped-up day care,” even though several had been around for decades.
But opposition to the Milwaukee plan on the part of an entrenched educational establishment was predictable. Less predictable was the skepticism of school choice advocates such as prominent educational consultant Myron Lieberman, who, in his book Public Education: An Autopsy, wrote, “The Milwaukee plan is likely to turn out poorly because it is not a competitive market system of education.” Lieberman argued that the small and (to his mind) severely underfunded plan was almost designed to fail, after which choice critics would bombard the airwaves with “see, I told you so” pronouncements. And, indeed, this prognostication almost came to pass in the plan’s first year, when one choice school closed and others struggled to remain solvent.
But by 1993, the same year Lieberman’s book appeared, the worst of the storm had passed: The three largest choice schools—Bruce Guadalupe, Harambee, and Urban Day, which collectively enroll about 70 percent of all the city’s choice students—were financially secure with increasing enrollments, and five new schools had joined the program. (These schools must agree to accept the state tuition voucher as payment in full; they may not, under law, charge parents any additional fee.) Choice, it appeared, was here to stay, even if on a limited scale. The critics and skeptics, choice advocates now say, underestimated the determination of parents to make the concept work—to have schools for their children in which their own voices could finally be heard.
If choice parents were largely invisible in their prior public schools, they are everywhere visible in their new schools—in the corridors, in the office, and even in the classrooms, where they sometimes work as aides. In fact, the choice schools are, for the most part, parent-run; parents sit on the boards and chair committees. Bob Rauh, principal of the all-black Urban Day School, the largest choice school with 256 program students out of a K-12 student population of 597, told me that the school has an open-door policy when it comes to parents. “We’re happy to have parents sit in on their children’s classes anytime they so choose,” he said.
Rauh, a former Jesuit Volunteer Corps worker whose office is literally a desk posted in the middle of the hallway, believes that the very act of making a choice has transformative power. “You’ve got to understand that many of our parents have never been able to choose anything before,” he said. “While every suburban family exercises choice—get transferred in your job, and the first thing you do is check out the best school districts—a lot of our parents can’t choose where they live, what hospital they go to. They’ve never been able to take ownership of anything until this point. So being able to choose their own school is a very powerful thing. Our parents grow tremendously in terms of responsibility, wanting to go back to school, to get involved in the community. And it all starts with their involvement in school.”
But Rauh said anyone wanting to understand choice needed to talk to parents, not to him. So he got up from his desk, disappeared into a doorway, and returned escorting a black woman with three daughters at Urban Day. Her name was Irma Walton, and the story she told me was typical of many others I would hear.
Walton said that her son, now in high school, had become discouraged to the point of despondency in public elementary school. He never had homework and was making no apparent progress in reading or math; nevertheless, she was told at teacher conferences that he was “doing well.” Alarmed by the discrepancy, she made arrangements to sit in on her son’s classes—this, she says, involved securing a series of permissions—so that she could see for herself what was going on.
“As a parent,” Walton said, “you could see right away that they weren’t really teaching our kids. If the kids were disruptive, the teachers didn’t stop to gain control; they just kept on going with the curriculum. If the kids got it, fine; if they didn’t, well, they just didn’t. So I pulled my son after the 5th grade and put him into Urban Day where there were no more than 23 kids in a class. For the first part of the year, he was in a shell—his self-esteem had been going way down—but his whole attitude changed when he saw how everyone here cared about him.”
When the parental choice bill was first proposed, many educators worried that vouchers would skim the best students from the public schools. But as Walton pointed out, the opposite has happened. “Parents whose children are doing well have no problem with the Milwaukee Public Schools,” she said. “A lot of them got their kids in the best specialty and magnet schools. It’s those parents whose failing children are stuck in failing schools who are angry at the system. These parents call me and say, `I’ve talked to the teachers, the principal and get nowhere; they won’t give me satisfactory answers.’ All I can do is refer them back to the school to try again, because in a public setting, who do you go to? No one knows. Here, you always know who to go to.”
Two mothers who had been listening to Walton talk now joined the conversation. One said she had decided long ago, years before the advent of the choice program, that she would never let her child attend a public school if she could avoid it. There the struggling child was without support; it was a sink-or-swim environment, she said. The other mother added: “It’s like this: We’re all looking for family, and we find it here. I know all the teachers, all the parents, so that it’s like years ago, in the old neighborhoods, when you’d see someone else’s child doing something and take them aside for a talk. That child would listen to you because he knew you and knew you cared something about him. So you see, we look out for other people’s children, almost like in a traditional family. We get involved with other people’s children.”
The clear implication was that public schools, at least those that served the very poorest, too often set parents and children adrift in anonymous institutions. It was their private choice schools, and not the public schools, that offered a caring community. In one respect, this was an interesting twist, for choice critics have long insisted that vouchers were fated to create a free-for-all educational marketplace in which private school parents would seek what’s best for their own children while remaining oblivious to the needs of others. A local teachers’ journal, Rethinking Schools, made this very point in a recent article that equated choice with “highly individualistic approaches of looking out for number one.” But these choice parents say something very different. They say complacent public schools are too often indifferent to their captive clientele, while their own chosen schools are communities borne of freely formed associations.
After talking with the parents, I was given carte blanche to visit Urban Day classrooms. They were highly structured environments: Students worked through math problems on the blackboard, marched through corridors in single file, and obeyed teachers’ injunctions to “stop talking” or “to talk as loudly and clearly as possible.” Teachers commanded, it appeared, with a minimum of threats and bribery. As at Harambee and Bruce Guadalupe, two other choice schools I visited, students wore uniforms, and the sense of decorum was almost palatable, as if students had internalized the pledge I had heard 1st graders stand at their desks and recite: “I will do my best in all my classwork. . . . I will listen carefully. . . . I will respect myself and help others do their best.”
Rauh dropped me off in the middle of a 7th grade class where Sister Mary Vaughn, a tiny woman who has taught at Urban Day for 25 years, was teaching students how to create kinship charts. “Of course, family involves a lot more than genes,” she told the students. “It’s those who care for us in the best possible way who become our parents.”
While the students worked, Sister Mary came over to talk. She told me that she never punished students for misbehavior. “I tell them, rather, that it’s below our dignity to do that,” she said, “that our ancestors were better than that. I say ‘we’ even though I’m white because you must be one with them, not up here”—she raised a flat palm to her forehead—”above them. Otherwise, you’re fostering a savior attitude in which you’re doing for rather than with. That’s the trouble I have with the hierarchical structure of [the Milwaukee Public Schools]—it fosters a ‘doing for’ attitude.”
The order, decorum, and talk of self-respect was impressive, but it did not necessarily mean that learning was taking place. In fact, according to a controversial state-commissioned study of the choice plan by University of Wisconsin political science professor John Witte, the difference in student achievement between public and choice schools, as measured by standardized tests, is almost negligible.
But Sister Mary, like everyone associated with the choice schools, took fierce exception to Witte’s findings, preferring to emphasize the fact that 96 percent of Urban Day students (92 percent at Harambee and 98 percent at Bruce Guadalupe) went on to graduate from high school, as opposed to the local public school figure of 65 percent. Furthermore, she insisted (as did principal Rauh) that Witte failed to take into full consideration the fact that choice students typically enter their schools a year or two behind average public school students in terms of basic skills and therefore need additional time to make up deficits.
“These students did not develop poor work habits overnight, and we can’t correct them overnight,” Sister Mary said. “It takes time to overcome a lack of skills, to overcome a whole sequence of people who have told you that you can’t do anything right. But by the second year they’re here, the difference in these kids is like night and day; their ability to rise, to go on in spite of difficulties, is tremendous. If I didn’t have a deep belief in these families and their children, I couldn’t go on.”
She told me about a father she once rebuked for hollering at his daughter at school and dragging her through the corridor. The man apologized, and then said he sometimes got carried away because he didn’t want his daughter to end up as he had—unable to read even though he had graduated from the Milwaukee school system. Because of experiences like this, Sister Mary supported the expansion of the choice program to Milwaukee’s private religious schools; there simply weren’t enough nonreligious private schools to fulfill the needs of the city’s poor, she said.
But couldn’t that expansion, I asked her, harm the public schools by creating massive flight?
The classroom had become noisy, so she excused herself, walked over to the light switch, and wordlessly flicked it on and off, and then, the students now quiet, returned to answer the question. “No school system should be threatened by a program that’s working,” she said. “You have an obligation to study from it, to borrow from it. The point is this: Nothing with merit will destroy anything else, unless it deserves to be destroyed.”
Small but singular, Milwaukee’s choice plan has, since its implementation in 1990, been studied by policymakers interested in establishing voucher plans in their own communities and states. But the author of the original bill, the now-prominent Northside assemblywoman Polly Williams, believes that far too many students of the plan fail to understand its grass-roots nature. It’s passage, she explained, was no legislative miracle but rather a matter of disenfranchised parents “going to board meetings, lay-ins, sit-ins, die-ins.” For politicians, choice is too often a fashionable idea with an indeterminate shelf life; for the black community, it’s a chance for people to seize control of their educational destinies.
Williams, a favorite of The Wall Street Journal and a folk hero in Milwaukee’s black community, has been called everything from a neo-conservative to a black nationalist. (She’s marched with militant ex-Black Panther Michael McGee.) But she herself disdains all labels, saying only that she’ll continue to fight for choice until “they carry me out.”
Her own frustration with the Milwaukee Public Schools reached a breaking point with the school desegregation policies of the late 1960s, when, as she tells it, the educational power brokers “told” black parents that their children would have to “chase” white kids to the suburbs if they wanted an equal education. Why, an indignant Williams asked—and this is the question choice parents continue to ask—should black kids have to be exiled from their own communities to get a decent education? She answered her question by sending her own children to Urban Day School, though as a single mother briefly on welfare she couldn’t always pay the full tuition.
“A lot of us parents were tired of hitting our head on a stone wall, trying to get the school system to do right by our children,” Williams told me as she dutifully folded flyers in her office. “It’s not that I think the public school system can’t be changed, but I don’t think we have to sacrifice the lives of our children while waiting on that system. Because the system just won’t turn over and do right. The teachers’ union will fight any kind of change that will reduce their power. So we shouldn’t wait. After all, these people getting the big paychecks”—here Williams was referring to Milwaukee’s public school administrators and teachers—”have already moved their children out of the public schools. Yet they’re having a fit because our parents are doing what they’ve already done—leaving.” (A recent study found that 32.9 percent of the city’s public school teachers send their children to private schools, compared with 23.9 percent of all Milwaukee families.)
Time and time again, Williams insisted that the educational establishment objected to choice not out of a concern for black children but because it feared losing money and jobs. If this weren’t the case, she wondered, then why did the state pay $10,000 for an inner-city black child to attend a white suburban school through the desegregation plan but only $3,200 for the same child to stay in the city at a private choice school?
“I’ll tell you why,” she said. “The price is higher the whiter you get. Our children are valued more if they get up at 5 a.m., standing out in the dark and cold, so they can be bused to some faraway place where no one teaches them anything. [The white establishment] controls everything. White bus companies, white businesses, white suburbs—they get millions upon millions on account of Chapter 220 [the now 25-year-old desegregation plan]. Do you think that money goes to poor people? And then, when you talk of empowering poor people, white people say, `That’s fine, as long as we do the empowering.’ They love to label our children at-risk because they know there’s money in our poverty and misery, in social programs that employ the white middle class. Now they’re saying the choice plan is creaming the `best poor,’ but you never heard that before choice. There was no `best poor.’ “
Williams had been interviewed on these subjects many times before, but her anger at the educational establishment seemed fresh, raw, and unrehearsed. It was as if all of her reserves of patience had been exhausted. Perhaps they had. For when I repeated choice critics’ common assertion that public schools were accountable in ways that private schools could never be, she pushed the flyers aside and launched into what was both a harangue and disquisition.
“What are the public schools accountable for?” she asked. “What good is all this talk of accountability if a child goes there for 12 years and then comes out unable to read and write? Why, with all of these rules, requirements, and resources, is the product so inferior? It’s because they don’t care! Yet whenever we talk about parents taking charge, they talk about how stupid parents are—`Well, they’ll all be going to the David Koresh school’—as if parents don’t know the difference. They’re insulting our intelligence! And if a parent chooses Koresh, that’s a parent’s decision. I don’t agree with it, but I don’t agree with what the bureaucracy is doing either: sending our children to some faraway school where no one teaches them anything so that they can come home exhausted at 7 p.m. Is that a good decision?”
Williams paused to catch her breath. “They’d love to kill this little preemie because they know it’s working. As long as parents and not bureaucrats are making the decision, it’s working.”
Williams’ insistence that it is the parents and not public school officials who are finally accountable for their children’s education reminded me of something I’d read in a book by educational thinker Seymour Sarason. In a chapter titled “You Know More Than You Think and More Than They Give You Credit For,” Sarason implores prospective teachers to resist becoming indoctrinated by teacher educators and other education “experts.” He reminds them that they have already spent years in schools and have observed countless teachers and teaching styles. What Sarason is saying to young teachers is that they are the experts, and, as such, they have an obligation to bring to the classroom their own valuable intuitions and insights.
This is precisely the point Williams and other choice advocates want to make about parents: They know a lot more than they think they do and certainly a lot more than the “experts” think they do. Realizing this renders them fully capable of making intelligent choices.
So what kind of choices have Milwaukee parents made so far? According to John Witte, the state evaluator, they are far from monolithic. “The most important conclusion to be drawn about the schools in the choice plan is that they are diverse,” Witte writes. “They serve different populations; their approach to education varies considerably.”
To an extent this is true. Two Montessori schools and a Waldorf school now accept a small but growing number of choice students, as do two alternative high schools enrolling adolescents with an array of social and behavioral problems. And one of the original choice schools, the Woodlands School, is in fact a progressive school in the experiential, child-centered Deweyan tradition. Classrooms and corridors are virtually wallpapered with student work. Activities are project-based. The day I visited the school, students were constructing castles as part of a study of medieval Europe.
Nonetheless, the three largest choice schools, enrolling more than 650 of the nearly 900 1994-95 student participants, emphasize discipline, basic skills, and direct instruction. They are “traditional” in the sense that teachers determine what students are to learn; they consider the whole notion of the teacher following the students’ interests to be pandering at best, an invitation to failure at worst. Their students, they say, have profound deficits that must be addressed head-on; as one principal put it, “We’ve got to structure time to make every minute count.”
At Harambee School, which emerged out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s (Harambee means “pull together” in Swahili), “open” classrooms were actually tried in the mid-70s. But according to the school’s principal, Sister Callista Robinson, they were a dismal failure. She explained that the majority of her students were the poorest of the poor, the very lowest in terms of academic accomplishment, and that structure and discipline were essential to their growth. “Some of our children,” she said, “come to us so far behind that we have to spend the first year settling them down. So we have very strict classroom rules.” Sister Callista paused thoughtfully and then winced, as if she had just seen a rodent skirt across the floor. “I have to have order,” she said, “I just can’t stand chaos.”
She took me on a tour of the school. Most of the classrooms, particularly in the upper grades, were sparsely furnished. The students sat in straight rows, the limbs of the larger boys and girls spilling out of their too-small desks. The teachers’ desks, typically at the front of the room, were so tidy that I almost expected to see an apple shining on the corner of the table top. There was little in the way of extraneous clutter; everything in these classrooms had an instructional or moral purpose: science and language posters, portraits of African-American heroes. I had the feeling that there was an ongoing war against distraction.
We peeked in one 8th grade classroom where a boy, apparently oblivious to the teacher parading about with textbook in hand, was slouched at his desk, half-asleep. Sister Callista frowned, snapped a heel on the wooden floor, and then—as the boy blinked awake—gave him a look that could wilt a rose. He straightened up.
Later, walking down the corridor, Sister Callista said, “We don’t feel that just because a child is having problems at home he has a right to be disruptive. We try to make them take responsibility for their actions.”
This was no throwaway line; it was a statement about the indispensability of high expectations—and the evils of low ones—that resound through the entire choice movement. Too many parents at too many schools had, like Urban Day’s Irma Walton, seen their children go without homework and make no academic progress. They had concluded that the public schools simply could not bring themselves to demand much of their children. Of the middle-class children attending the magnet or specialty schools, yes; but of their own children locked into the worst neighborhood schools, no. They might get a multicultural curriculum, or pleasant smiles, but they would not, so the perception was, learn how to read and write. “The attitude,” Polly Williams told me, “is `I’m not going to put this on you ‘cause you come from a horrible home.’ It’s not love, it’s patronizing.”
Ironically, then, choice schools like Harambee have, at least superficially, much in common with an older generation of public schools to which they are now alternatives. For Americans like to think, not necessarily with a great deal of accuracy, of the “good old” public school as a place of discipline, respect, and basic learning—the very values the choice schools strive to purvey.
This point was underlined by Walter Sava, director of the United Community Center, the southside Hispanic agency that operates the Bruce Guadalupe Community School. Sava is a prominent proponent of choice. “It’s enabled us to do all of this,” he said, indicating in a sweeping gesture the school’s sparkling new facilities. Referring to a California progressive school he’d read about in this magazine, he said, “It’s `loosey goosey,’ with kids roaming about, doing a little bit of this and that. Now, such a `loosey goosey’ approach may work very well out in the suburbs with nice middle-class kids who go home to computers, libraries, and summer travel all over the globe. But there’s no way it can work for our kids. Our parents care, but they can’t provide what middle-class parents can. A lot of them are immigrants with rural backgrounds and maybe 6th grade educations.”
Sava himself is an Argentine immigrant, who arrived in the United States knowing only a few words of English. In the 1970s, he taught at a college in Waukesha, a city to the west of Milwaukee with a sizable and increasingly vocal Hispanic population. Sava and other Hispanics felt an urgent need for bilingual education, but the Waukesha public schools resisted their entreaties, leading Sava to participate in a boycott. Later, Sava came to believe that the public schools acted, or failed to act, out of sheer ignorance: They simply did not know how to serve the needs of Hispanic children, especially those who spoke Spanish as their native language. What was needed, he determined, were schools that specifically addressed the needs of the Hispanic population—schools that would develop explicit standards that parents could support.
Sava slid a substantial document across the table to me; it was titled “Scope and Sequence of Curriculum Topics and Benchmarks Grades K-8.” He said, “We want a clear progression in what kids learn, so when you finish 8th grade at Bruce Guadalupe, you will know these things, and your parents will know that you know these things. It’s all spelled out very clearly.”
The curriculum, while bilingual, was not what I expected: It was neither back to basics in any rote sense nor particularly rooted in Hispanic culture. It was, rather, almost classical in emphasis, like that of one of the old Latin schools. The reading list was all Great Books, beginning in kindergarten with The Owl and the Pussycat and concluding, in the later grades, with such works as Oliver Twist and Julius Caesar. While there was plenty of memorization and emulation—students were to recite poems and recreate great speeches—the curriculum also had a series of bulleted items, such as “Detect structure in a variety of literary genres” and “Keep a journal for recording thoughts and ideas regarding material read.”
Sava told me the curriculum was grounded on the philosophy of consultant Maxine Newsome and outlined in her book, A Privileged Class: Choosing an Exemplary Private School and Why You Must. By “privileged,” Sava explained, Newsome meant attainment and not social class; his Bruce Guadalupe students were expected to meet the same standards as the elite.
Sava took me around the sprawling community center. It included an art gallery, a drug rehabilitation center, a Mexican restaurant, and the school. He then introduced me to principal Allen Nuhlicek, who came to Bruce Guadalupe after retiring as principal of a Milwaukee public school.
“Here we use the word love,” Nuhlicek said almost nonchalantly when asked about the difference between Guadalupe and the public schools. “It’s very difficult to talk about love in the public schools. People will always say they care about children, but in the public schools, when you ask someone to do something extra, you’ll hear, `I’m not sure it’s in my job description’ or `Will I have to do bus duty?’ This is stuff you deal with all the time.”
Union intractability and school system regulations, Nuhlicek said, made it very difficult for principals to shape visions for their schools. Although principals had the primary responsibility for their school’s success, they weren’t even allowed to select their own staff members. In 12 years as principal, Nuhlicek had been permitted to hire just two teachers—and these only on account of a bureaucratic lapse.
“Teachers are prone to follow the union leadership rather than the school leader,” Nuhlicek said. “If bad teachers feel protected by the union, you can’t make them better. They don’t want to know about their weaknesses and what they can do to redress them. And when a principal tries to fire a teacher, he’s the one who will be on trial, having to document every last little thing.”
Nuhlicek described a process that people in the choice movement refer to with monotonous regularity—the annual “dance of the lemons.” As Nuhlicek described it, the dance entailed a classic “Catch-22”: The principal has to give a bad teacher an average evaluation—this a yellow card termed a “281T”—so that the teacher can be transferred out to another school. At the new school, the process gets repeated all over again, the teacher foisted upon one accommodating but unenthusiastic “dance partner” after the other. To tell the truth and give a teacher a deservedly negative recommendation meant subjecting yourself to an interminable review process that was the educational equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Interestingly, Nuhlicek said he had been fortunate while in the public schools: The teachers at his former school were excellent. This made me wonder if all the reports I’d been hearing about bad Milwaukee public school teachers were not, as the union claimed, exaggerated and apocryphal. “As in any profession, some of our teachers are outstanding, and some are not,” said MTEA spokeswoman Linda Gaston-Mounger. “But for the most part, they are good people doing a good job.”
When our conversation turned to the Bruce Guadalupe curriculum, Nuhlicek echoed Sava’s words: Students needed a certain core of knowledge, which was why the school had adapted E.D. Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy. “Everybody wants kids to ask enriching questions, but how can they ask such questions when they don’t know anything?” the principal asked. “You have to lead them to water, to interest them in knowledge that will stand the test of time. We want our students to interact with the best authors, the best scientists, the best thinkers. If they’re going to give a speech in class, they should do it with the best orators in mind.”
I asked Nuhlicek if his teachers used work sheets and standardized tests. “Oh, my goodness, no,” he said. “We want our kids to perform, to show us what they’ve learned.” He pointed to the back of the curriculum guide, upon which were listed 12 performance-based graduation requirements. In “American Cultures,” students were to “select significant current events and trace these events to historical occurrences.” In “English Language Speaking,” students were to “give individual presentations from memory of a selected speech and give meaning and context for the speech.” And so the list went.
Nuhlicek and I spent the afternoon attending classes, which were highly structured and yet free of regimentation; there was a sense of order, yet order itself was not the point. The activities were purposeful, the students enthusiastic participants. In kindergarten, children acted out roles in The Owl and the Pussycat, the two teachers having them repeat lines with various intonations, in what was both a drama and an English lesson. In a 2nd grade classroom, teacher Pedro Mercado was transcribing English narratives onto a gigantic pad of paper as fast as his students could speak; when they finished, the students went about correcting their errors in a collective peer edit, Mercado slashing and dashing about with his marker. On the walls were dozens of 3-by-5-inch cards blocked with English words. Most of his students were, as yet, Spanish dominant.
Mercado had come to Bruce Guadalupe from the Fratney Street School, a well-respected Milwaukee magnet school with a bilingual program and an intensive multicultural focus. “You call these kids’ parents, and they come,” he said, explaining why he had made the move to Guadalupe. “They know and support our philosophy.”
Many choice critics suggest that voucher plans like Milwaukee’s will lead to deepening segregation, as parents select schools that reflect their own racial and cultural backgrounds. As far as Milwaukee is concerned, they seem to be right: Two of the largest choice schools are virtually all-black, and a third is virtually all-Hispanic. But Mercado demurred. “Always worrying about diversity can get in the way of learning,” he said. “I know what’s going on culturally with these kids because I come from the same background. I know how to teach them.”
My day ended with a visit to an 8th grade classroom. A few weeks earlier Nuhlicek had told the class he would throw them a pizza party if, when he returned, a handful of randomly picked students could explain the workings of the electoral college. Now they tried—one after the other. The first four succeeded; but the next faltered and then surrendered. The pizza party, they were told, would have to wait for another day.
Is the choice plan working? Are students getting a better education than they would be getting at the public schools?
Because there is little objective research on the plan except for John Witte’s annual reports to the state (and his critics say they are hardly objective), any judgment must necessarily depend upon parental testimony and subjective impressions. But this does not mean that judgments cannot be made. Participating parents, after all, very much like the plan, and to suggest that this is not a legitimate gauge, that parents lack the wherewithal to judge their children’s schools, is to engage in the sort of condescension that drove many parents from the public schools in the first place.
In any case, the Milwaukee choice plan has accomplished one thing beyond dispute: It has deeply involved long-alienated parents in their children’s schooling. This is of crucial importance, standing as a powerful retort to educators who have long suggested that parents burdened by social and economic problems could devote but minimal attention to educational issues. As Witte stated in his fourth-year report, “Based on four years of highly consistent data, the overwhelming conclusion is that choice parents are significantly more involved in the education of their children than [Milwaukee public school] parents.”
At first glance, these findings are somewhat surprising, for Witte has long been perceived by choice proponents as an opponent, somewhat of a hired gun for the state department of public instruction. They cite a 1990 article in which Witte wrote that decentralization and choice would be in 10 years’ time “simply another set of failed reforms.” Of his adversaries, no one has been more vociferous than Harvard government professor Paul Peterson, who, in a series of somewhat vituperative documents, has charged that Witte has severely underestimated the success of the choice plan. In a debate of escalating rancor, Peterson has accused Witte of withholding important data while releasing other data that are “entirely worthless”; Witte, who describes Peterson as “a pro-choicenik,” has threatened legal action.
Among the many issues of contention is that old bugaboo: test scores. Peterson has argued that Witte’s evaluation of test score data has failed to account adequately for such factors as income, welfare dependency, and native language, all of which put choice students at an educational disadvantage. (On this last point, Bruce Guadalupe’s Walter Sava concurred, saying his school’s large Spanish-speaking population negatively influenced total test results.) Witte, in turn, claims that these variables would have only a relatively minor effect on scores.
Regardless of how this dispute plays itself out, the fact of the matter is that much of Witte’s report is actually favorable. He notes that the choice plan’s attrition rate, 23 percent in 1994 (roughly the same as the city’s public schools), has been steadily declining. And in more cases than not, he renders positive portraits of choice classrooms and schools.
In fact, during a telephone interview this past spring, Witte said “the choice program has been successful enough to continue to try it at other places.” But what he really wanted to talk about at the time was Governor Thompson’s proposal, passed by the legislature subsequent to our discussion, to expand choice to religious schools. He was concerned about the separation of church and state and about a choice domino effect. “I want the legislature to tell us straight out if they want choice for all schools in Wisconsin,” he said. If so, he added, then he is against it. Parents of means who want a private school education for their children, he argued, should pay for it themselves.
But Witte acknowledged that the educational tide had turned, perhaps forever: Expanded choice and privatization were the wave of the future in Wisconsin and perhaps even the nation, he told me. The teachers’ unions and educational establishment are engaged in a losing effort, he said. “They’ll have to stick their fingers in a lot of dikes to prevent these things from happening.”
On a warm May afternoon, in the offices of Zakiya Courtney, director of an organization called Parents For School Choice, I watched a videotape the Milwaukee teachers’ union had made to support five candidates running in the spring school board election. The election was, in part, a referendum on the policies of then-superintendent Howard Fuller. A supporter of the existing choice plan, Fuller had pushed a number of controversial reform ideas, including the creation of charter schools. He had even explored the possibility of putting two failing public schools under the management of the Edison Project, a private company.
To union critics, the video was a perfect example of the union’s defensive and self-pitying response to proposals for change. “We’re under constant attack,” MTEA President Chuck Howard says. “While spouting reform, the governor and mayor are bashing public schools.” He goes on to suggest that “even our superintendent” is aligned with big business interests. Then, one after the other, the candidates stare into the camera, espousing indistinguishable positions. They say they are against “all privatization,” “voucher programs,” “profiteering on the backs of our children,” and “big money politicians who will back those who turn our schools and jobs to private employees.” They’re for “lower class size, contracts bargained in a timely fashion, and funds not taken away.” The union distributed 3,000 copies of the tapes.
On April 4, four of the five MTEA-backed candidates were elected to office. Voter turnout was poor, as low as 5.5 percent in one voting district. Two weeks later, on April 18, superintendent Fuller resigned, writing in his resignation letter that, “The day-to-day management of the district will be crippled in an atmosphere where the superintendent and his staff are uncertain about the depth of board support.” He added, after referring to the “scurrilous messages” the MTEA had spread in the video, that “powerful forces conspire to protect careers, contracts, and current practices before tending to the interests of our children.”
Of course, union members had a different perspective. “The videotape was, after all, part of a heated political campaign,” said Bob Peterson, a veteran public school teacher long active in union politics and editor of the journal Rethinking Schools. “Besides, it’s not like Howard [Fuller] had never flirted with privatization. He had proposed, as everyone knows, that the Edison Project take over a couple of troubled schools.”
On June 22, in the wake of Fuller’s resignation, the State Assembly voted to permit up to 7,000 Milwaukee children (as many as 15,000 by the 1996-97 school year) from low-income families to attend private religious schools as well as private nonsectarian schools. The move would add as many as 50 new choice schools to the mix. In the Milwaukee Sentinel, Polly Williams was quoted as saying, “Now public education will have to get its act together.” A week later, the State Senate also passed the bill, and the changes went into law. On Aug. 1, opponents, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, filed suit to block the expansion of the program to religious schools, arguing that it was a violation of both the Wisconsin and U.S. constitutions.
Courtney, who had been an Urban Day parent before joining Parents For School Choice, said she was a great admirer of Fuller but believed that his resignation was in some respects the best thing that could have happened for Milwaukee. People had “held back” their criticism of the school system, she said, for fear of hurting him; now they could be uncompromisingly bold in their demands for change. Besides, she added, Fuller could be more effective on the outside, chipping away at a system to which he was no longer indentured. Now a professor at Mar-quette University, Fuller recently co-authored an article arguing in favor of the expanded choice plan.
Like so many others I had spoken with, Courtney fulminated about the “annual dance of the lemons,” the inability of public school principals to hire their own staff members, the mandates that shackled the few enterprising teachers the system did have. Her husband, she said, was a public school teacher who liked working with kids in the very worst schools—”the weapon-carrying kinds of schools.” He had been working with at-risk kids in an alternative school but had, on account of some bureaucratic glitch, been “bumped.” So he tried to get on the faculty at Malcolm X, one of the city’s two so-called African-American immersion schools. His request was de-nied because a clause in the union contract, inserted in response to a 1979 desegregation order, specified that no more than 23 percent of the teachers at any one school could be black. In other words, she pointed out, an African-American teacher couldn’t get a job at an African-American immersion school whose teaching staff was overwhelmingly white.
“When Malcolm X was formed a few years ago, any teacher who wanted to stay there could stay,” Courtney said. “A school with an African-American emphasis, or any kind of particular emphasis, can only work as a charter school when the principal can select teachers who share a common philosophy. But the union won’t let that happen. They want to guarantee that Malcolm X remain a white teachers’ school.”
The union leadership likes to suggest, with some accuracy, that many people in Milwaukee take an almost morbid delight in bashing the union and public school system. “If unions are the reason for the school crisis,” Peterson asked, “then why are schools so bad in the South where there is little union strength?” While Peterson was forthright in his own criticisms of the union and the Milwaukee public schools—yes, they were too often resistant to change and unresponsive to parents—he said the answer was not to take resources away from public schools for risky voucher and privatization plans. “Schools like Urban Day are smaller and have smaller class sizes, which makes for a more humane environment,” he pointed out. “So why don’t we get smaller schools and lower class sizes in the public schools?”
MTEA spokeswoman Gaston-Mounger made a similar point. “The expanded voucher program means lost dollars for the Milwaukee public schools, cutting into important programs,” she said. “That’s not competition, no matter what Polly Williams says. That’s siphoning off kids and money.”
As my conversation with Courtney drew to a close, she suddenly became more diplomatic, as if mindful of such concerns. “The perception is that people like me are against the public school system, period, and that’s just not true,” she said. “I’m as concerned about the well-being of the public schools as the private—103,000 of our children are in them. So choice is just part of the total reform package. People just want quality education, and they don’t care if it’s at a public, private, or parochial school, as long as they find it. All we’re asking for is an option, a real choice.”
Vol. 07, Issue 01, Pages 30-36