The Wisconsin Legislature may have voted to increase the number of students who can participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, but Susan Mitchell believes it’s the votes of the parents that count most.
"When the parents can vote with their feet, people sit up and take notice," Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said at a K-12 Education Reform Summit held in Milwaukee recently. "It has and will continue to spur a great deal of community renewal, because when parents show they are willing to go out of their way to drive this and send their children to other schools, then private investors and philanthropic organizations will build new seats."
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program began in 1990 with seven schools and 337 students. It has grown now to include 125 schools and has room for 22,500 students. MPCP, commonly called a voucher program, gives low-income parents about $6,500 per student to use at a variety of schools – public and private – to which they prefer to send their children. Milwaukee Public Schools receives roughly $10,000 in state aid for each student enrolled.
Since its inception, MPCP has withstood numerous legislative, court and public relations challenges, turning Milwaukee into what Mitchell calls the "largest array of educational options for parents in any urban setting in the country."
Courts have ruled that the MPCP is constitutional because the intent of the program is for parents to seek a better education for their children, rather than an attempt by the state to use government money to promote a particular religion. While parochial schools were included in the mix in 1995, MPCP is not limited to schools of a particular denomination or religion.
Those who have supported the rights of parents to choose the best school for their children, Mitchell says, make up a coalition of strange bedfellows.
"We cross all religious, ethnic, socio-economic and political lines," Mitchell said. "Our determination is to remain united in policy and strategy, which is easy to say but hard to do."
The Wisconsin Legislature three times passed a law to increase the cap on the number of low-income students eligible for the program, and all three times Gov. Jim Doyle responded with a veto. School choice supporters created a political action committee, spending $1.5 million in direct and indirect contributions to help pro-school choice legislators. An almost daily demonstration at the state capitol, including visits by students asking legislators to lift the cap, helped sway public opinion, but Doyle remained opposed.
Two Milwaukee-area Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature broke ranks with their caucus and have been vocal supporters of school choice, sometimes at the expense of being accepted by their colleagues.
"I’m a Democrat and I support school choice," Sen. Jeff Plale announced to the education reform summit attendees. "I’m a product of public schools, my kids go to public schools, but when you see kids at the mall, they don’t have signs on their chests that tell you if they go to public or private school."
Plale said the fight to lift the cap lead opponents to institute a theory of "death by a thousand cuts," that has attempted to chip away at the ability of parents to choose what is best for their children.
"Even today, people would love to wave a magic wand and make it all go away," Plale said. "But to play politics with these kids’ lives is extremely distasteful. Families make life-long decisions on where to live based on schools."
Jason Fields, a state representative from Milwaukee, said he is told over and over by his Democrat colleagues that his support for vouchers is wrong.
"We have a situation where 66 percent of African-American men in the Milwaukee Public Schools don’t graduate, and as a black man that concerns me," Fields said. "I ask my caucus for solutions and no one will step up to the plate, but yet they say I’m wrong?"
Fields said his colleagues often respond that the Milwaukee Public Schools need more money in order to operate better.
"The outstate schools get less money and graduate a lot more kids," Fields said. "You can’t tell me more money is the answer."
Republicans in the legislature have been split over the MPCP, too. Leah Vukmir, a Republican state representative from the Milwaukee area, said Republicans in other parts of the state come under fire from their constituents because some people believe the MPCP sends more money to Milwaukee that otherwise should go to their school districts.
After months of discussions, it appeared Doyle would veto the cap increase once again. Supporters, however, including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, responded with radio and television ads that featured parents and children who had benefited from the program pleading not to be denied education options. One television ad featured a father asking why it was OK for Doyle’s son to attend a private school, but not other children. In the end, Doyle agreed to raise the cap in exchange for a guarantee that voucher schools would submit to more state accreditation and accountability standards.
Ken Johnson, a former president of the Milwaukee Public Schools board of education, was and remains a supporter of parental choice.
"The main driver was that people didn’t want to see the (public school) monopoly end," he said. "Their feeling was, you will come here whether you like it or not. How can that serve students or parents?"
As MPCP grew and parents were given more options for educating their children, Johnson said he knew MPS had to respond.
"If you’re not willing to close schools that do no perform, what message are you communicating to the personnel, the parents and the students?" he said. "That they don’t count?"
Various studies over the years have shown two things have occurred since the inception of the MPCP: students who attend the voucher schools have performed better academically, and so have their counterparts in the public schools from which eligible voucher students come.
Since choice became available in 1990, enrollment in Milwaukee Public Schools has increased 7.4 percent, while its graduation rate, performance on standardized tests and per pupil spending have all gone up. The dropout rate and the number of schools the state identified for improvement both fell.
"With the parent choice program, we have many different models by which parents can choose," MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos said. "When you have that, no longer is MPS a monopoly. That competitive nature has raised the bar for educators in Milwaukee to provide a good product or they know that parents will simply walk."
Attendees of the school reform summit were given the opportunity to tour some of the schools that participate in the choice program. At St. Anthony School, enrollment has more than doubled since 2003, where 99 percent of the students are Hispanic and 99 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Terry Brown, the school’s president, credits the increase in students, from 400 to almost 900, with the decision to adopt direct instruction and core knowledge teaching philosophies.
"It’s one thing to start a new school and create a reform model," Brown said. "It’s another thing to take a school that’s been in existence for 130 years and switch gears, but we felt we had to do it to be just to the children and just to the taxpayers."
Students at St. Anthony, for example, study history chronologically, while math and English instruction stresses mastery.
"There’s wide latitude for teachers in how to present things, but the content is determined," Brown said. "We don’t want the rain forest being taught three times in grade school but never have any mention of the War of 1812."
Students, many of whom are classified as English Language Learners, have a two and a half-hour reading block each morning, followed by 50 minutes of spelling and grammar, then an hour of math.
Brown said the school stresses student achievement because it feels a responsibility to do so in return for the voucher money. Families of only eight students at the school can afford to pay tuition.
"Market forces should determine whether or not a school stays open," Brown said. "We offer music and art, which MPS is cutting, and we’re able to do this with a lot less money."
Located in what has been called "Satan’s backyard," Hope Christian Schools focus on urban education and social justice, according to Superintendent Kole Kneuppel.
"We believe in the power of kids and the parents who choose to make a difference," Kneuppel said. "We try to be a positive environment and a great place to send kids."
Metcalf Park, the neighborhood where Hope’s elementary, middle and high schools are located, is plagued by an unemployment rate in the low 30s and an even higher percentage of adults without a high school diploma. At Hope Academy, high school students arrive for classes early, playing chess and listening to classical music in the gymnasium. Students can stay until 5 p.m., and many attend from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.
"We have a bunch of great teachers," Kneuppel said. "They are willing to do anything and everything to help the students."
Teachers are required to provide students with their cell phone numbers, and many will take students on spontaneous field trips to museums, the zoo or even a Friday night football game.
"When the student feels that love from the teacher, and knows they can call any time, they can’t sit in class and say they didn’t understand the homework," Kneuppel said. "We talk a lot about social justice, but not just out of pity. We hold them accountable to real world standards, because ultimately, excuses harm them."
Mitchell and the others who support the rights of parents to decide what educational setting is best and safest for their children know the increase cap will soon be met and the battle will continue.
"There are so many more families who desperately want something better for their children," she said. "There could be a lot more than 22,500 enrolled if the supply could keep up with the demand."
Mitchell said as many as 70,000 children could be eligible for MPCP if that many seats were available, and thousands more in other Wisconsin cities also would qualify if the program were to be expanded beyond Milwaukee. She knows it will not be easy.
"The results not withstanding, we’ve been under steady attack," she said. "In 2001, when the cap was increased to 10,000 children, we thought they’d leave us alone. We were dead wrong. The legislature tried to reduce the amount of funding."
Plale said no battle is "too petty," for those who oppose parental choice. He related a story about a Catholic school in his district that literally sits half in the city of Milwaukee and half outside. It applied to participate in the program, but was rejected because of that technicality.
Ultimately, parental choice supporters agree that student learning is the bottom line.
"When kids thrive in school and get better jobs, the economy thrives and when the economy thrives we all benefit," Plale said. "There’s no reason for anyone to set up hurdles and put this program in peril. We shouldn’t be fighting the same battles (over and over)."