Experiments in Choice

Most United States experiments in choice are limited to public schools only. Programs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, East Harlem, and Minnesota allow some form of public choice. In Cambridge, the percent of students choosing to attend public schools rose from 74°1o to 82°% after choice was allowed. In East Harlem, two schools which failed to attract students were closed and later reopened with new staff and programs. [76]

Importantly, pursuant to state legislation, up to 1,000 Milwaukee public school children from low-income families were allowed to attend private, non-religious schools at state expense under a choice plan. The initial indications are encouraging. One mother when asked whether her son was thriving in his new private school said: "He doesn't like it. It's a serious school where they give him homework and want him to learn. The classes are smaller and they know what he's doing. He's not accustomed to being in any class where they are paid any attention." [77]

While choice offers real hope for improving the education of the poor and the non-white, and while sponsored by Polly Williams, a black legislator from the inner city, a list of opponents is instructive. Opponents include the superintendent of public instruction for the State of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Milwaukee Branch), the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, Wisconsin Congress of Parents and Teachers, Inc., and the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers.

Superintendent Grover, who publicly opposed the program prior to its passage, encouraged, indeed welcomed, a suit challenging the law. [78] His opposition is based on the view that the law allows public funds to pass to private schools unaccompanied by sufficient control and accountability to ensure the quality of teachers and curriculum. He also expressed concern that the program would drain Milwaukee public school funding without a comparable reduction in the fixed cost of maintaining those public schools, leading either to an increase in Milwaukee property taxes or to a reduction in the level of services to students remaining in public schools. A Wisconsin state court of appeals ruled in November 1990 that the legislation was unconstitutional. State officials are allowing students to remain in private schools while appeals are exhausted. [79]

Again, the unelected special interest groups and their champions rise to prevent poor people from choosing. Polly Williams criticized the traditional remedy for the poor: desegregation. She believed that the poor and the non-white need both the power and the responsibility to educate their own. Finding the Milwaukee public school bureaucracy unresponsive to her ideas, she pushed for private choice. [80] It remains to be seen whether the Wisconsin courts will allow the poor to choose or remain powerless.

By contrast, in 1917 the Netherlands enacted a constitutional amendment guaranteeing full-blown choice. Any responsible group, public or private, is guaranteed the right to private education. Discrimination in funding is precluded. Public schools and private schools are treated equally with regard to funding. Moreover, in regulating private schools, "due regard must be paid to their own freedom to private education in accordance with their religious beliefs." In 1920, nearly 70 percent of Dutch children attended public schools. Today more than 70 percent attend private schools. [81]

Accordingly, it is understandable that superintendents, teacher unions, school administrators, and perhaps the NAACP would oppose programs such as Milwaukee's which would give true power to poor, non-white parents while taking it away from bureaucrats.