School Choice Debate Is Over, Says Norquist

Published January 1, 2000

If it’s true what choice opponents say about vouchers–that they’re a hoax–then a lot of Milwaukee residents are being taken for a ride, according to a new poll conducted this fall by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A solid 60 percent or more of poll respondents in the metropolitan area voiced support for Milwaukee’s historic voucher program, which allows low-income parents to use their school tax dollars to pay for tuition at secular and religious private schools.

Although the mere mention of school vouchers still is enough to drive opponents to distraction, the Journal Sentinel poll reveals that taxpayer-funded school choice now is an accepted part of a broader definition of public education in the Badger State. Even among people living in the five-county area outside Milwaukee, who cannot take advantage of the city’s voucher program, 59 percent supported the choice program, only slightly less than the 62 percent support from city residents.

“The debate on school choice is largely over here in Milwaukee,” according to Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist, who spoke at an October 21 Educational Forum organized by the Journal Sentinel. “In Milwaukee, I think we’re beyond experiment,” he added. “We’re into the reality of how these systems work.”

Norquist predicted that the quality of K-12 education would improve as the system became more responsive to parents, and that increasingly “cities would be where teachers would want to live and to educate their own children and other people’s children.”

The initial Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, where vouchers were limited to use at secular private schools, was approved by the GOP-led legislature in 1990 after being championed by Wisconsin State Representative Annette “Polly” Williams, State Senator Gary George, and Governor Tommy Thompson. In 1995, the program was expanded to include religious schools and up to 15 percent of the city’s 105,000 students.

After prolonged court battles, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in June 1998 that the program did not violate church-state separation, since the state gave the vouchers to students, not directly to the schools. That November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the Wisconsin court’s ruling, effectively ending further legal battles.

Today, the program provides a voucher of up to $5,000 directly to the student, whose parents then select one of more than 80 private schools that accept the voucher for tuition. Roughly 75 percent of those private schools are religiously affiliated. Some 8,000 low-income students are currently attending private schools in Milwaukee.

Not surprisingly, the Journal Sentinel poll showed that the low-income families targeted by the Parental Choice Program were among its strongest supporters. More than four out of five people (81 percent) with incomes less than $11,000 a year favored the existing voucher program, as did people with less than a high school education. Strong support for the school choice plan also came from Hispanics (77 percent) and African-Americans (75 percent).

Although the voucher program was designed to expand educational options for poor children in the city, two-thirds of the respondents (66 percent) favored the idea of expanding the plan statewide to include all low-income children. Well over half of the respondents also favored expanding the plan statewide to include all children, regardless of income.

The poll was conducted for the newspaper by the Public Policy Forum and Lein/Speigelhoff Inc. of Brookfield, Wisconsin, who surveyed 800 people living in the five-county Milwaukee metropolitan area between September 24 and October 11. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points, with higher errors for questions addressing subgroups.

When respondents were asked to rate the importance of different educational goals, the top three goals selected were preparing students for the following challenges:

  • to be good citizens;
  • to succeed in college; and
  • to succeed on the job.

Respondents showed little inclination for pursuing “feel-good” reforms, and instead emphasized competency testing and a back-to-basics curriculum. Giving a thumbs-down to social promotion, 85 percent said public school students should be required to pass proficiency tests before advancing to the next grade. When asked to select which statement best expressed their views, 55 percent chose “schools need to focus on the basics, like reading, writing, or math.” Only 38 percent chose “schools need to teach a broader range of subjects because the world is getting more complex.”