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.

§ Lesson Number Two: Vouchers do not necessarily foster improved academic achievement. While vouchers have been presented as a way to help provide educational opportunities for African-Americans, the reality is that no one really knows how students in the private voucher schools are performing academically. A report this February by Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau pointedly noted that “some hopes for the [voucher] program–most notably, that it would increase participating pupils’ academic achievement–cannot be documented.” Voucher schools are not required to give the same standardized tests demanded of public schools, and even when they do, they are not required to release the scores. Twenty-eight percent of the voucher schools in 1998-99 were not accredited or seeking accreditation or subject to any independent review of educational quality. Available evidence points to a private school system that includes some good schools, some mediocre schools and some substandard schools. This year, three of the voucher schools are so substandard that even the Milwaukee pro-voucher group Partners Advancing Values in Education will not provide scholarships to the schools.

Interestingly, in the past three years there has been another experimental program in Wisconsin targeted at low-income students–this one to reduce the class size in kindergarten through third grade. In contrast to the voucher program, the class-size initiative can document improved academic achievement. In its recently released third-year report, the program, known as Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE), showed that students in small classes performed statistically higher across all grade levels in comparison with a control group of students in non-SAGE classrooms. Gains were especially noteworthy for African-American students. African-American third graders in the program, for example, narrowed the gap between their achievement and that of white SAGE students, while in the non-SAGE schools the gap widened.

§ Lesson Number Three: Voucher schools are not accountable to the public. The voucher schools argue that because they are private, they get to play by different rules than the public schools. As a result, voucher schools do not have to provide any data on test scores, suspension and expulsion rates, teacher certification or teacher salaries, and the education of bilingual and special-education students. They don’t even have to hire college graduates as teachers. Further, voucher schools are allowed to circumvent basic constitutional protections such as free speech, due process and equal protection. They also argue that they are exempt from a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy, and marital or parental status.

If a parent prefers that his or her child attend an integrated school, it’s even hard to get information on the racial breakdown of voucher schools. Private schools are not required to release such data.

To date, much of the church/state controversy over vouchers has centered on concerns that public dollars are being funneled into religious education (currently, vouchers remain in legal limbo because the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether they violate the separation of church and state). But the First Amendment also protects religious institutions from government “entanglement”–in other words, from the government dictating how religious institutions should operate. An unresolved legal dilemma is whether demands that voucher schools play by the same rules as public schools will violate prohibitions against government “entanglement.” If so, what will win out: demands for public accountability or religious freedom for voucher schools?

§ Lesson Number Four: Voucher schools do not necessarily serve all children. One of the most contentious issues in Milwaukee has involved special education. By law, the private schools are not required to provide the same level of special-education services as public schools. According to the Legislative Audit Bureau report, in 1998-99 only 3 percent of the voucher students had been previously identified as requiring special services, compared with about 15 percent of public school students. The report went on to note that voucher students are more likely to receive services that are relatively low in cost, “such as those needed for children with speech and language disabilities or learning disabilities.”

Only two of the eighty-six voucher schools studied in the report provided bilingual education. And only about 38 percent of the voucher schools provided transportation for students, which helps insure equal access. James Hall, a board member of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP, fears that in the long run “the public school system will be a last-resort dumping ground, or at least it may be perceived that way. And perception unfortunately can become reality.”

§ Lesson Number Five: Parents do not necessarily want to abandon the public schools–they want them to work better. Despite ten years of vouchers, African-Americans and Latinos have not flocked to the private schools. In Milwaukee there are only 1,359 more blacks in private schools than four years ago; during the same period, the number of African-Americans in the public schools increased by 4,419. Nor did the voucher schools, as a group, enroll as many students as their capacity would have allowed, according to the Legislative Audit Bureau report.

It’s revealing that a large number of African-American parents have exercised their choice to attend a suburban public school rather than a private school within Milwaukee, under a state-funded desegregation program known as Chapter 220. Currently some 5,500 students take part in the program. During 1998-99, there were three times as many applications from students of color as available seats in the suburban districts. The continuing popularity of the program, which began in 1976 and is the longest-running “choice” program in the state, demonstrates that African-American parents do not necessarily dislike public schools per se but want their children to attend well-funded, quality public schools. In the Milwaukee area, as in most urban areas, suburban schools spend significantly more per pupil than city schools.

Advocates of public school reform find themselves in a complicated position. On the one hand, they must continue to expose the problems in public schools and demand that they provide a quality education to all children. On the other hand, they must defend the institution of public education as a public good and expose voucher plans for what they are–essential building blocks in a conservative agenda to privatize our schools and remove them from public oversight and responsibility.

Currently there are three voucher programs in this country–in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida–in which public dollars are used to pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools. But voucher bills are on the docket in more than twenty states this spring. At a time when our urban schools need to commit themselves to equity and high standards for all children, vouchers promote a mentality of escape, individualized advancement and abandonment of responsibility for the collective good. African-Americans would be among the first to lose under such a system. At best, vouchers are a temporary solution for a limited number of children–but with no accountability, even that is not guaranteed.

Milwaukee Democrat Gwen Moore, one of two African-American state senators, argues that until now, there’s been a “feel good” approach to discussions about vouchers, keeping the discussion at the level of pleasant soundbites. “But I think the morning after is coming, after this big party…. We’re feeding on our public institutions, and it’s the public schools that are the only guarantee that all children are going to have some basic level of education.