Milwaukee Celebrates 10 Years of School Choice

Published November 1, 2000

The “My School, My Choice” dinner was planned for September 21 as an event to celebrate ten years of school choice in Milwaukee and to honor those who had made it possible.

But as the roles of the individuals and organizations who had taken part in the ten-year struggle were related, recognized, and applauded, the event also became a vivid demonstration of the power of school choice to revitalize and strengthen a community by bringing all of its diverse members together to work for a common goal.

“Families in Milwaukee now enjoy the widest array of educational choices available to any urban parent in America,” noted Governor Tommy Thompson in a congratulatory letter. Thompson, who strongly believes “parents know best and will make the right decisions for their children,” was later recognized as one of those who helped lay the foundations of the parental choice program.

“People come from all over the country and ask ‘How did you do it?'” said master of ceremonies Zakiya Courtney, who was later awarded for her work as a grassroots organizer. “We did it because we put aside our differences for the sake of our children.”

“We are dedicated to the proposition that all parents have the right to choose schools for their children,” declared Marquette University professor Howard Fuller, who presented the awards and received one himself. Fuller is a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

As Fuller narrated the contributions of the many participants in the struggle for parental empowerment, it became clear not only that “one person can make a difference,” but also that different people with different talents are needed to make the difference at different points in time: legislator, parent, principal, community organizer, governor, philanthropist, legislative aide, lawyer, mayor, school board member, newspaper editor, business leader, and more.

Time after time in Milwaukee, individuals and organizations stepped forward to make a difference when they saw their talents and resources were needed to keep the parental choice program going.

“At every step of the way, people have stood up when they were needed,” said Fuller.

The event was organized by Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, headed by Fuller. Over 400 guests gathered at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee’s historic third ward to recognize the efforts of more than 70 unique individuals and organizations who helped give low-income parents in Milwaukee the power to choose the school they feel is best for their child–be it public or private, secular or sectarian.

“We’re here this evening to celebrate the long, hard struggle for good public policy,” said Courtney, while warning guests that “it’s not over yet.” And although it was 10 years since the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was launched, the struggle began much earlier than that.

Laying the Foundations: Pre-1990

The Milwaukee voucher program grew out of several failed attempts over a long period of time to change the power arrangements in the city so as to improve education for low-income minority children. The turning point in that frustrating struggle came in 1989, when State Representative Annette “Polly” Williams sponsored the bill that ultimately became known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

“We honor her for her vision, her courage, and her commitment . . . because without her truly we would not be here this evening,” said Fuller. “We love her for blazing the path we are on today.”

Passing the 1990 Legislation

Fuller reminded the audience that in a long struggle, some supporters may drop out and some may become opponents. On the other hand, opponents sometimes are won over. For example, one of the first legislators to publicly support the Parental Choice bill was Rep. Spencer Coggs. Sen. Gary George was first opposed to the measure, but later became an invaluable asset in achieving its passage.

But change is constant, and neither legislator is on the side of choice today. Nevertheless, said Fuller, “we honor them for being there at the critical beginning of this struggle.”

Getting Started

The law was signed just weeks before the start of a new school year. With just one month to notify parents, order additional school supplies, create new classrooms, and hire staff, only seven brave schools chose to participate in the program: Bruce Guadalupe, Harambee, Lakeshore Montessori, Urban Day, Woodlands, SER Jobs, and Juanita Virgil Academy.

More turmoil was to come. Two weeks after the bill was signed, opponents filed a lawsuit to block the program, at which point Clint Bolick and the Institute for Justice stepped forward to forcefully defend the program in court, aided by parents Thais Jackson and Doris Pinkney. Three weeks later, the schools opened in the glare of national TV coverage. The nation’s first publicly funded parental choice program was underway.

Helping Us Along the Way

One of the stipulations opponents had placed in the law was to bar from the program any children already enrolled in private schools. Michael Joyce and The Bradley Foundation stepped forward and allocated $2 million in scholarships to help those children. Since 1992, the Bradley Foundation and PAVE–Partners Advancing Values in Education–have awarded more than $22 million in scholarships for children from low-income families.

On the political front, Mayor John Norquist vetoed a Milwaukee Common Council resolution opposing the choice program, while on the intellectual front the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute produced quality research and data on school choice that effectively refuted claims of opponents.

Working for Expansion

This phase involved tireless parents like Pilar Gomez, Janine Knox, Blong Yang; courageous business leaders like Tim Sheehy and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce; Dr. Sandra Smith and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; principals like Brother Bob Smith and Monica Fumo; and labor organizer and school board member John Gardner. When opponents sought an injunction to halt the program in 1995, Fumo’s picture appeared on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel comforting a crying parent.

“Money or no money, we will not turn you or anyone else away,” she pledged.

Passing the 1995 Legislation

The 1995 law expanded the Parental Choice Program to include religious schools and allowed up to 15,000 students to receive a voucher of up to $5,300. The expansion would not have been possible without the support of courageous legislators like Representatives Scott Jensen, Steve Foti, and Antonio Riley; and Senators Joe Leann, Mary Panzer, Brian Burke, Peggy Rosenzweig, and Robert Welch.

Securing and Maintaining the Victory

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the expanded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was constitutional, the strategy of choice opponents changed, according to Fuller. After failing to prevent passage of the program in the legislature and failing to stop it in the courts, opponents next tried to “regulate it to death.”

The new challenge called forth new champions for parental choice: the Helen Bader Foundation, the Fleck Foundation, and State Representatives John Gard, Glenn Grothman, Steve Nass, and Jeff Stone.

“Once the court validated the choice law, we quickly learned that it would be a whole new endeavor to protect it,” said Fuller, noting that “we’re ten years into this and we’re just beginning to fight.”

But he reminded everyone of the words of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without demand. . . . This struggle may be a moral one or a physical one, but it must be a struggle.”

Representative Jensen looked forward to celebrating 20 years of school choice in 2010. When we do, he said, “We’ll look back and marvel that once we had bureaucrats choose schools for our children.”

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