Who's Vouching for Vouchers?
§ 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.