Cammillia Mays is an African-American single parent who, like millions of parents across the country, faced a difficult decision when her daughter turned 4 years old. Where should she send her to school?
She had heard of Milwaukee’s voucher program, under which public tax dollars can be used by low-income parents to send their children to private schools. The idea of a private school sounded good.
But after two years Mays switched her daughter to La Escuela Fratney, a public school in Milwaukee. And she has no regrets.
“The difference between Fratney and the private school is dramatic,” she says. “You can’t even compare in the sense of the one-on-one attention at Fratney, the teacher involvement, the sense of security, the level of education, parent involvement, the sense of organization.”
“I have to be honest,” she adds. “It was not what I expected from a public school, based on the negative stigma that is attached to the Milwaukee Public Schools.”
Milwaukee, which ten years ago instituted the country’s first voucher program, is often called “ground zero” in what is one of the most contentious issues in education–whether to provide public dollars to private schools, including religious schools. This is thanks in part to the pivotal support of the right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which is based in Milwaukee. Over the years, the Bradley foundation (which also financed The Bell Curve) has poured millions of dollars into the struggle for vouchers in Milwaukee–helping to pay legal bills in defense of the program; funding advocates of vouchers, especially in the African-American community; and financing a think-tank study extolling the virtues of vouchers and marketplace approaches to education reform.
Using the seductive rhetoric of choice and opportunity, voucher supporters have wooed those most disserviced not only by public schools but by every other social institution–African-Americans and Latinos. And there is little doubt that many low-income parents, especially those who have the time and resources to shop around for the best school for their child, support the idea of getting public money to go to a private school. But it’s equally clear that after a decade of vouchers in Milwaukee, many parents, like Cammillia Mays, are not ready to give up on public education.
About 8,000 low-income students currently receive a publicly funded voucher of up to $5,100 to attend one of ninety-one private schools taking part in Milwaukee’s voucher program. In 1998-99, religious schools were allowed to take part for the first time, completely transforming the program into one predominantly serving religious schools. (About 70 percent of the voucher students attend religious schools.)
What are some of the lessons that can be learned from Milwaukee’s experience?
§ Lesson Number One: Vouchers drain money and support from the public schools. The Milwaukee voucher program, which this year costs $39 million, is not funded separately but comes directly out of state dollars that would otherwise go to public schools. At the same time that public dollars are going to private voucher schools, the state has imposed spending limits on public schools–which, in the case of Milwaukee Public Schools, has led to a $31 million deficit this year. One of the many contradictions is that under current Wisconsin law, school districts may raise local property taxes to help pay for the voucher program, but cannot raise taxes similarly to meet the needs of public schools.