The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has survived over a decade of assaults from its opponents due primarily to the efforts of a strong school choice coalition. In How School Choice Almost Died in Wisconsin, Susan Mitchell, president of the American Education Reform Council and senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, emphasizes that passing legislation or a ballot initiative does not insure school choice success. She notes that victory for choice proponents at the ballot box or in the legislature is only the beginning of a new phase of the school choice debate.
Mitchell's report is important to school choice advocates because Milwaukee represents the oldest testing ground for maintaining school choice. She identifies choice opponents' three-pronged approach to block or hinder school choice and how to overcome them. First, organized opponents of school choice will attempt to use legislation to defeat school choice. If that fails, they will use the courts to stop school choice. Finally, as a last resort, they will attempt to overregulate the private schools who participate in the school choice program.
In order to overcome opponents' efforts to defeat or neutralize a school choice program, Mitchell recommends five strategies:
Strategy #1: Expect opponents to attempt to regulate school choice at every stage of the battle.
Opponents of school choice understand that increased regulation will discourage private schools from participating in choice programs. They will propose additional regulation not to improve the program or resolve problems, but to end or contain it. The experience in Wisconsin demonstrates that opponents will use this tactic with "fierce persistence."
Strategy #2: Counter opponents' efforts with a strong, vigilant, and unified school choice coalition.
Opponents of school choice are interest groups with special interests to protect. School choice advocates must organize themselves to monitor legislative and administrative developments, seek sound legal advice, and respond aggressively to threats to school choice.
Strategy #3: Beware of proposals purporting to improve "accountability."
Do not confuse rules and regulations with accountability. Public schools lack effective accountability despite being heavily regulated. School choice provides the highest form of accountability. When parents are unhappy with their children's education, they can take their children to a school that better serves their needs.
Strategy #4: Fight misinformation aggressively.
Opponents of school choice often influence legislators, the courts, and public opinion with misinformation and half-truths. They understand that they can defeat pro-school choice legislation (or sponsor anti-choice legislation), block choice in the courts, or regulate an existing choice program if they can create a climate of confusion or fear. School choice supporters must always respond with accurate, credible information.
Strategy #5: Support well designed legislation and oppose poorly designed legislation.
Opponents of school choice understand how to use the legislative process to bolster or protect their interests. Many legislators owe their elected position to the support of these special interest groups. This fact provides opponents with the ability to advance legislation that can hinder or destroy a school choice program.
School choice supporters must remain vigilant in their efforts to prevent poorly designed legislation. Failure to do so will complicate any school choice program.