Debunking Lies about School Choice

Published November 1, 1999

Opponents of school choice are telling lies about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the record needs to be set straight, former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller told a Heritage Foundation audience in Washington, DC, on September 9.

Fuller is the founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. He was recently named to Texas Governor George W. Bush’s education advisory team for the 2000 Presidential race.

Fuller is a strong advocate of local control, of empowering parents rather than functionaries in the system. He also firmly believes that poor children from dysfunctional families can be educated successfully, and that teachers must have high expectations for all students, not just those from advantaged backgrounds.

Confirming Fuller’s desire for universally high expectations, The Heritage Foundation recently identified 25 principals from across the country whose predominantly low-income Hispanic and African-American students scored significantly above the national average. (See “No Excuses: Just High Achievement.”)

Who disseminates the lies? Fuller identified People for the American Way and one of its key funding sources, the National Education Association, as the two main organizations that spread untruths about school choice.

Lie: Vouchers Primarily Benefit White Suburbanites

In June 1999, North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt made the astonishing claim to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Milwaukee voucher program did not help poor, black inner-city children. Instead, he said, it primarily served parents of “suburban white kids who are either already in private school or whose parents want them to be there.”

In fact, students participating in the Milwaukee voucher program must live in the city and must be from a low-income family. The original 1990 law barred participation by students already enrolled in private schools.

Lie: Private Schools Take the Cream, While Public Schools Take All

Fuller noted that the public schools may take all children “but they don’t necessarily keep them.” Milwaukee and other districts send at-risk students to alternative schools, which often are privately run operations. On the other hand, choice schools often receive their students through a random selection process, which effectively prevents them from doing the very thing their opponents accuse them of.

Lie: Vouchers Drain Dollars from Public Schools

Fully funded vouchers in Milwaukee cost significantly less than the per-pupil spending in Milwaukee’s public schools. Per-pupil spending in the public schools increased after the choice program went into effect.

Lie: Vouchers Simply Prop up Catholic Schools

This charge is not supported by the facts, said Fuller. Non-Catholic African-American churches are moving rapidly to open schools to create the capacity needed to accommodate the 15,000 students eligible for vouchers in Milwaukee.

Lie: Vouchers Violate the Separation of Church and State

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the inclusion of religious schools in the Milwaukee voucher program was not a violation of the Constitution. When opponents appealed the ruling, the United States Supreme Court–the final arbiter of constitutionality in this country–chose not to hear the case.

Lie: Voters Have Rejected School Choice

Fuller noted that prior to the Milwaukee school board election last spring, all five teacher union candidates campaigned on the slogan, “This is a referendum on school choice.” When all five lost their races, they claimed the election had been “a referendum on laptop computers.”