School Choice and Urban Revitalization

Published December 1, 2000

Could school vouchers revitalize cities by giving the middle class a reason to stay, and by giving the poor the education they need to move into the middle class?

Calvert Institute president Doug Munro thinks so, basing his optimism on a survey of families who left Baltimore for the suburbs in 1996. Education expert Denis P. Doyle agrees, contending school choice is the only way to prevent the continued deterioration of the nation’s major cities. And although he is currently pursuing another school improvement strategy, in 1991 Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley suggested on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” that the missing middle class in big cities could be attracted back with vouchers.

Could something as simple and inexpensive as changing the way public school taxes are distributed succeed in revitalizing a city where billions of dollars of urban renewal funds often have failed? With the 26th largest school system in the United States and a school voucher program now 10 years old, the City of Milwaukee provides early indications that vouchers can help rebuild urban neighborhoods and make cities more attractive to families.

While not attributed to the influence of vouchers, conditions in Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods improved significantly during the 1990s, according to a January 1999 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The study, “The Employment and Economic Well-Being of Families in the Central City of Milwaukee,” showed that during the five-year period ending December 1997, housing values in most central city neighborhoods rose, violent crime decreased, there were more functioning businesses, most families were working, and household income was growing ahead of inflation.

Those findings help put a more attractive face on the city neighborhoods, said the study’s lead researcher, John Pawasarat, director of the university’s Employment and Training Institute. City officials responded positively to his findings.

“What it shows is that the heart of the city is a working population; that they are working more, they are earning more, and that their incomes are rising,” David Riemer told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last year. Riemer is the city’s director of administration and Mayor John Norquist’s advisor on welfare reform.

“It’s not to say we don’t have serious problems,” Riemer explained. “But what this shows is that the poor in Milwaukee work, and the primary form of help therefore must be to help low-income workers.”

Former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller agrees, saying any empowerment agenda must put people “in position to control and distribute money.” Fuller, now a professor at Marquette University, is president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

“You can’t revitalize a city without having the brainpower to encourage economic empowerment,” he said recently. “That takes us right back to the schools. . . . [W]hat we’re fighting for [is] a system where the dollars will fight for the students. That’s choice; that will empower people to bring about fundamental change.”

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