Destination Milwaukee: Making the Pilgrimage

Published July 1, 2000

In the not-so-distant past, Schlitz claimed it was the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Today, it’s not the beer but school choice that has made Milwaukee famous again.

Several times a month, a different group of modern-day pilgrims visits Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Mecca of the contemporary school choice movement. They come with a single purpose: To learn more about grassroots urban school reform from a city that has lived it and is being transformed by it.

They come on fact-finding tours to learn how school choice works, how it was put in place, and how politicians from different parties and with different philosophies can come to agreement on how to help children get a better education.

They come seeking to be better informed in the public policy debate on parental empowerment in education; looking for enlightenment about school vouchers; seeking inspiration for their own efforts in their home states.

Here’s what one group of visitors found when they visited the city for a whirlwind 24-hour visit earlier this year.

The Visitors

The visit was organized by the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, with the help of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, also of Indianapolis. This particular group consisted of about 30 visitors from six cities in three states, with a wide range of backgrounds and interests.

Among the visitors were fifth-grade teacher Chris Montoya, former state representative Sam Reyes, and radio talk show host Pam Wolfe from Las Cruces, New Mexico; concerned parent June Gomez and police sergeant Ray Atencio from Albuquerque; Jon Caldera and Pam Benigno from the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado; Gene Cortez from WaysOut Academy in Colorado Springs; Jesse Thomas, a candidate for Congress from Denver; and Rhonda Jones, a concerned parent from Indianapolis.

“You’re here in a fact-finding mission, and we’re here to give you the facts,” Zakiya Courtney told the group at its first stop at Urban Day School. Courtney, who is with Howard Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, also made it clear that different points of view would be heard on the tour. The pilgrims would hear not only from school choice advocates, but also from the teacher union and the public schools.

“Just because we are for vouchers and charter schools doesn’t mean we’re against public schools,” said Courtney.

The Choices

Courtney described Milwaukee as “the City of Educational Options.” Those options are not just vouchers and charter schools, but also what is going on in the public schools. In fact, according to state Education Policy Advisor Bill Steiger, one of the reasons Governor Tommy Thompson supports school choice is because it puts pressure on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to ensure that “no child is left behind.”

The governor also supports choice because it provides parents of modest means with a range of quality choices in education. In Thompson’s view, Milwaukee has more options for parents than any other city in America:

  • voucher schools (e.g., Urban Day School and Harambee Community School);
  • MPS regular schools;
  • MPS charter schools;
  • city-sponsored charter schools;
  • MPS contract schools (e.g., Bruce Guadalupe);
  • MPS selective enrollment schools;
  • chapter 220 (where Milwaukee students can attend suburban schools).

One of the reasons Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist supports vouchers is that they give parents the option of choosing a better school in the city and thus staying in the city. Polls show that the single most important reason people give for leaving the city is the quality of the public schools.

“The business community is very concerned about the quality of education and they believe that competition and choice will improve the quality of public education,” said city Administrative Director David Reimer.

Some 25 percent of MPS teachers send their children to private schools, and others use Chapter 220 to send their children to public schools in the suburbs.

The History

Although Milwaukee’s voucher program was approved by the state legislature in 1989, the fight for vouchers in Milwaukee started two generations ago, as Mikel Holt has related in his book about this struggle, Not Quite Free At Last. In the 1960s, African-American parents protested the dual education system for blacks and whites by chaining themselves to bulldozers on the sites of new school buildings. They appealed to the city and to the state for better schools, to no avail.

In 1970, African-American parents first promoted the idea of vouchers for Milwaukee and proposed a $4 million voucher grant. The initiative failed because of fierce opposition from the teacher union and the NAACP, two groups that have continued to oppose vouchers to the present day.

If separate and unequal schools were bad, what African-Americans got in the 1980s because of a desegregation order was even worse: Forced busing. Under forced busing, the dropout rate for blacks increased, their test scores dropped, and their suspension rate skyrocketed. That’s when Howard Fuller and state representative Polly Williams planted the seeds of citizen empowerment.

In 1988, some 18 years after blacks had first proposed the idea, Governor Tommy Thompson introduced his voucher bill, which met the same fate as the earlier one–immediate defeat at the hands of the teacher union. But Polly Williams brought the proposal up again and again, redefining it as a bottoms-up civil rights issue of “Choice plus Options.” Many of the planning and strategy meetings during that period took place in the gym at Urban Day School.

Even with the voucher program now in place, it still is subject to attack from the teacher union and from People for the American Way, a group Holt describes as “the plantation overseers,” who think they know what’s best for African-Americans.

“The worst thing you can call a liberal Democrat is a racist,” said Holt.

The Politics

When Polly Williams and African-American parents in Milwaukee won the Parental Choice Program for Milwaukee, that didn’t mean the teacher union accepted the program and learned to live with it. Richard Saks, an attorney for the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, made it clear the union was strongly opposed to the idea of parents using their tax dollars to educate their children anywhere but in public schools. He characterized the choice program as “privatization,” and his objections revolved around “accountability to the public at large”–such as accountability for test scores, spending, teacher certification, and whether choice schools turned away students with disabilities.

The Independence Institute’s Jon Caldera disagreed, arguing that the most important accountability is to parents, not to an elected school board or to a regulatory body. Supporting Caldera’s position, MPS school board member John Gardner pointed out that the worst public schools are the most heavily regulated, and they don’t get any better from the increased regulation.

“After five years on the school board, I have no confidence in regulatory authority,” said Gardner. Schools and teachers make the difference, he argued, but the structure of incentives in the government schools does not promote the replication of the best educational practices. In his view, the groups that are ill-served by the government’s public schools are African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and native Americans.

Saks insisted that “public schools serve everyone,” arguing that the crisis in the education of poor children was because “our policy-makers are failing our schools.” The voucher program was impoverishing the public schools, he said, noting MPS had “lost” $29 million to the voucher program and now had a record budget shortfall of $32 million.

When Willie Jude, Deputy Director of MPS, spoke to the group later in the day, he was asked whether the district’s budget deficit was because of the choice program, as Saks had implied. Jude agreed that MPS has a deficit, but said it had little to do with school choice. The deficit, he explained, is because of a property tax cap and the cost of employee wages and benefits–including those from a labor union contract signed last year.

Struggling to manage the budget shortfall, Jude also had some policy suggestions for lawmakers in Congress: Remove the barriers and red tape, provide flexibility, and have broader guidelines.

“Flexibility is the key to schools being able to make the decisions that move student achievement at the local level,” he said.

The Schools

While much attention has been focused on the voucher schools in Milwaukee, the surprise election of five reform candidates to the MPS school board last year–defeating a slate of union-backed candidates–gave a huge boost to reform efforts in the public schools.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine winning all five seats,” said Courtney.

According to Deputy Director Jude, the new board appointed a new superintendent, Spence Korte, who was committed to empowering individual schools to make their own decisions about individual issues and problems that arise in the schools. Spending authority has now largely been moved down to the local school level.

“We are decentralizing authority to our local schools” so they can do what is necessary to move student achievement, said Jude, adding, “We have to do business differently” because of the choice schools.

One of those differences struck visitors to Harambee Community School as they listened to principal Rodessa Evans talk about the 402-student school, where 70 percent are voucher students. The absence of ambient noise in the assembly room prompted the question: “Are there students here?”

“Yes,” Evans responded. “That’s called discipline.”

Responding to questions about testing and regulations, Sister Callista Robinson, the school’s chief executive administrator, explained the school does not participate in state tests but they do conduct Iowa tests on a regular basis so they can keep track of where students are academically. As far as state regulations were concerned, they had not found them to be too oppressive–at least so far.

“We are not a mini-public school,” said Robinson.

Bruce Guadalupe School, located in the United Community Center in Milwaukee, used to be a voucher school but has now converted to a contract school, where MPS pays the school $5,700 to educate each of its 525 K-8 students. This compares to $5,100 for a voucher student and $6,100 for a charter school student. The school board pays the same starting salaries to teachers as MPS, according to Center Director Walter Sava, who said the board also keeps a close watch on test scores.

“We’re not as concerned about what MPS thinks of our test scores as what our board thinks of our test scores,” Sava said.

Again, visitors contrasted the ambience of the school with that of public schools they were familiar with. When asked about crime on campus, Sava appeared surprised by the question but said it had not been a problem, with the school considered to be a safe place by both parents and students. Pam Wolfe commented that in her community in Las Cruces, New Mexico, there are armed police on the public school campus, and police conduct drug raids on the schools.

The Goal

In the assembly room at Urban Day School, a larger-than-life painting of Martin Luther King Jr. watches over the students. To the right of the painting, the words of the civil rights leader remind the students about the purpose of education: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence and character–that is the goal of true education.”

“These trips are a wonderful opportunity for people to learn about the reality of school choice,” said GEO Foundation President Kevin Teasley, who initiated the visits two years ago. When the visitors go back home and look at what school choice could do for their own communities, they know it’s something that works in Milwaukee, he added.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information . . .

about the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation and the Milwaukee schools visits, contact the Foundation at 1800 North Meridian Street #506, Indianapolis, IN 46202, phone: 317/283-4711. Or visit its Web site at