School Lessons

Published May 1, 1999

Lessons on Vouchers from Milwaukee

Although the title of Tamar Lewin’s March 27 New York Times article was “Few Clear Lessons from Nation’s First School-Choice Program,” her account of the Milwaukee voucher program suggests that two fundamental lessons can be drawn from the Wisconsin experience:

  • If parents don’t know about vouchers, they won’t use them.
  • Competition from vouchers really does improve the quality of education in public schools.

Publicity Is Essential

In a recent interview in School Reform News, Bert L. Holt, program director for the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, noted that publicity about vouchers in the newspapers didn’t help make most eligible families aware of the program because “75 percent of the people in the city do not read the newspaper.” Her solution was to get the choice message out through barbershops, hairdressers, preschool programs, Head Start programs, medical clinics, welfare offices, churches, mosques, and radio and TV.

In stark contrast, the public schools in Milwaukee “are not going out of their way” to publicize the voucher program, notes Lewin. In the district’s 55_page pamphlet on choosing a school, the word “voucher” is never used, and the only mention of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is in the glossary. Even though 15,000 vouchers are available to poor families in Milwaukee, only 6,000 children–just 6 percent of the city’s students–are using vouchers.

“Despite years of headlines, court battles, and impassioned debate in education circles, many poor inner_city families who would be eligible for vouchers do not know the program exists,” reports Lewin.

As an example, Lewin cites the case of 5-year-old Lakisha Childs, whose family was trying to get her transferred from a school where she was unhappy. They had never considered the voucher program “because they had never heard of it,” but they were very interested once it was explained to them.

“It sounds like just what we want,” said Lakisha’s 82-year-old grandmother, Martha James.

Competition Improves Schools

Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin is one of the new schools that has been created in Milwaukee because of vouchers, with 154 of its 180 students paying tuition with a voucher. The back-to-basics K-4 school serves an area desperately in need of additional schools, with only 500 of the community’s 1,500 elementary students able to attend neighborhood schools.

“This year we had 320 applications for our 180 spots, and we did a random drawing to choose,” Principal Robert Rauh told Lewin. “We believe everyone can learn, and we’re not trying to skim the best students. I don’t see us as sapping resources from the public schools, but as meeting the neighborhood need.”

Interestingly, one of the city’s responses to vouchers has been to make sure that it continues to serve the best students. For example, John Marshall High School is starting an International Baccalaureate program to attract such students.

“The best way to get and keep the best kids is to create a program that attracts them,” John Marshall guidance counselor Susan Brown told Lewin. “And maybe vouchers contributed to our doing that.”

There’s little doubt that competition from vouchers has increased pressure on the Milwaukee Public Schools to deliver a quality education. As a result, the city’s reading scores are up for the first time in five years, and the system now offers a guarantee to parents whose children are entering kindergarten: that they will be reading on grade level by the end of second grade. If not, the district will pay for tutoring.

Lessons on Credibility

In a March 23, 1999 letter to the Wall Street Journal, American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman claimed that “the handful of students who have participated in voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee have not demonstrated higher achievement in test scores.” There are, in fact, two peer-reviewed studies–one by Cecelia Rouse and the other by Paul Peterson and Jay Greene–that both show improved academic performance for Milwaukee voucher students. The initial research by John Witte, which showed no academic improvement for the voucher students, appears to be based on a comparison with an inappropriate control group.

“Amidst all the continuing media efforts to finesse the Milwaukee situation as one where academics disagree, it is much more accurate to say that academics don’t agree with Witte and disagree only on the extent to which gains have occurred, i.e., reading and math, or math only,” notes Milwaukee education consultant George Mitchell.

Lessons from Prison

“I’ve learned a lot about teaching from going to prison,” said Cathy Amanti, a second-grade bilingual teacher from Tucson, Arizona, where she also volunteers in the facilitation of conflict resolution workshops in the local federal and state prisons. Among the lessons she learned:

  • Schools and prisons are similar in many ways

“They’re both large government institutions run by hierarchical bureaucracies. They’re both overcrowded. They both have cafeterias and fenced yards and detention.”

  • Teachers, like prison guards, have a huge impact on the inmates’ quality of life.

“Teachers and prison guards occupy the same layer in their respective bureaucracies–the layer closest to the people the institutions exist to ‘serve.'”

  • Students need to learn conflict resolution skills in schools, not prisons.

“One of my classroom rules is also a workshop ground rule: Look for the good in each other.”

NEA Today
February 1999