The Model for the Nation: an exclusive interview with Annette Polly Williams

Published August 30, 2002

Thirteen years ago, Wisconsin State Representative Annette Polly Williams, an independent black Democrat from Milwaukee, took an historic step that earned her the title, “the Rosa Parks of vouchers.”

Fed up with how her low-income constituents never seemed to reap the benefits of programs intended to improve the education of their children, Williams defied her own party’s anti-voucher policy and formed an alliance with conservative Democrats and Republican legislators to achieve passage of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the first school voucher program of the modern era. Four years later, she again worked with GOP lawmakers to include religious schools and a larger number of students in the Expanded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Despite desegregation orders, additional funding, and programs such as the creation of magnet schools, low-income families in Milwaukee in the 1970s and 1980s found their children still largely confined to low-performing schools and rarely qualified to attend better schools. The answer, decided Williams, was to put the public funds for a child’s education in the hands of the parents and let them spend those funds at a private school if their child’s public school wasn’t satisfactory.

In Williams’ view, a school voucher plan must have the following components:

  • Only low-income parents may qualify for a voucher;
  • Parents decide where to spend the voucher; and,
  • Participating schools can’t pick and choose among voucher students.

Firm adherence to those three requirements has led to rifts between Williams and some of her former allies. She has denounced an attempt to expand the program beyond low-income families by Republican lawmakers and the Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, who proposed the idea to stanch the loss of middle-income families from the city. Williams also has offered criticism of private scholarship organizations for redirecting charitable donations away from private schools, who use the funds to provide the same kind of tuition subsidy as scholarship organizations but without a third party screening low-income families.

A native of Betzoni, Mississippi, Williams moved to Milwaukee with her family in 1948 when she was 10 years old. She attended public schools in Milwaukee but sent her own four children to Urban Day School, a non-religious private school with a reputation for high standards.

In 1972, Williams took her life in a new direction when she became involved in politics and was instrumental in helping her cousin win election as Wisconsin’s first black state senator. Four years later, she herself decided to run for office. She lost, ran again in 1978, and lost again. She didn’t give up, ran again in 1980, and won.

Williams is now serving her 11th term of office and is currently unopposed in the November election. She recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What made you focus on education reform?

Williams: I have always been focused on education, even prior to my election to the state legislature. I was working with community organizations and groups to improve the schools in our community and to get a quality education for our students in the public schools. The problem was that our children—black children—were not making the grade.

One solution that people came up with for improving the education of black children was integration. Many of our black parents believed that if their children were going to school with white children, their children would benefit from whatever resources were available in those schools. But the burden of desegregation or busing was put on the black children. Our children were bused out of our community into the white community.

I was one of those who joined with other parents to vehemently oppose busing. We said that busing had to be “Two way, or no way.” If black children were going to be bused into the white community, then white children should have been bused into the black community. But white parents wanted their children to stay in their own neighborhoods. As a result the law was implemented in favor of white children.

People assumed that when you integrated, you had to educate, but the integration law didn’t require children being educated. Desegregation does not mandate education. I didn’t feel that our children should have to leave their community and go into another community just to be educated. The tax dollars were supposed to be allocated to educate our children no matter where they were.

Clowes: What prompted you to back parental choice?

Williams: We wanted the children to stay in their own community and have the resources there. We had been fighting for years to improve the public schools but it was falling on unresponsive ears. The system’s attitude seemed to be, “What do parents know? They’re not educated, so they don’t know what’s best.” We said the parents should have more input in what was going on. We began asking, “How do we get more power to the parents to initiate what they think is best for their children?”

That’s why we drafted the parental choice legislation ourselves—my office staff, Larry Harwell, and I. We tried to make sure that we looked at all the possible loopholes, to see where people could circumvent our intent. We specifically targeted low-income students. We didn’t do it by race and we didn’t specify at-risk. We said low-income families are the only ones that can participate in this program because those are the students and families who need help the most and who always get left out. We were putting power in the hands of low-income parents to make sure they really did benefit. This entire parental choice struggle is about who can control the educational dollars.

You see, historically, every time legislation is passed to help low-income families, the actual implementation of the legislation does not benefit them. The needs of low-income families are used to generate the funds because there isn’t funding for a program to benefit upper-income families. The misery and poverty and the needs of the people at the bottom are used to justify the program, but when the program is approved and gets funded, others benefit.

Sometimes—depending on how loud or how large your crowd was—the system would come up with a small change, but it was never a change that significantly impacted our children. For example, under the desegregation order, when there was a lot of pressure for the white children to also be bused, they came up with the idea of magnet schools.

The idea was if white children had to come into the black community, they should come to the best schools the black community had. So some of our schools were refurbished and remodeled as magnet schools. Then white children who were bused in were able to go to these nice air-conditioned schools with smaller class sizes and a better curriculum.

But only certain selected black children were able to attend the magnet schools. So we had these better schools right in the heart of our urban community, but the students that lived around these schools could not go to them. The students that needed the help the most were denied help, and they were the ones who were put on the buses and sent all over town.

That was the hypocrisy of desegregation: It was supposed to be for the best interest of our children, when in fact it wasn’t. Yes, they put good schools in the inner city, but the inner-city children couldn’t go to them.

How did you get over the hurdle of working with Republicans?

Williams: We called it the Unholy Alliance. The reality was that out of 99 people in the Assembly, I needed 50 votes to get the bill passed. I knew that my side of the aisle did not support the parental choice legislation. In fact, the Democratic Party, the teachers’ union, and the liberal establishment did not support the parental choice legislation.

But my fight was for what was best for the low-income families and their children in the public schools. Several key Republicans, with their own agenda, saw merit in the Parental Choice legislation and with the support of conservative Democrats and Republicans, I was able to obtain the votes needed to pass the legislation in the Assembly.

It was a pilot program, like an experiment, just to see if it made a difference for our families. That’s why we said that students who participated in the Parental Choice program had to be enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools and be from low-income families. That way, people could see we were trying to help parents with children in public schools that were not meeting their needs.

Also, the program was only for 1,500 students out of more than 100,000 in the Milwaukee Public Schools. This wasn’t something large enough that would destroy the public school system.

Clowes: What’s your view of the program after 12 years?

Williams: The power of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is that it enables parents to exercise power and to make decisions about their children’s education. I believe we have the best of all the choice initiatives around the country and I think our legislation should be the model for the nation. That’s because the Milwaukee plan really empowers parents.

The families are happy and the parents are involved with their children’s education. They wanted an alternative to the public schools so they chose one of the private schools located in our low-income communities. These are not exclusive private schools; they are community schools. Our program also focuses on the most needy students and we drafted the legislation so it would have sufficient funds to educate the children.

For example, the Cleveland program needs to be more fully funded. With a voucher worth only $2,250, what kind of school are you going to get? That’s $2,250 to do everything—the school building, the maintenance, the education, the staffing, the supplies and so on. You can’t do it for that.

Florida’s program is based on failing schools but a failing school could be in a rich community. That means the voucher may go to rich families, which defeats the aim of helping low-income families. There are tax credits and other benefits for people with money. But a tax credit isn’t much help to low-income families because they don’t pay much in taxes. Once you make the program available to higher-income families, you defeat its purpose.

Clowes: That’s why you’re not in favor of universal choice?

Williams: Right, because it would negatively impact low-income students. For example, in Milwaukee we have a limit of 15,000 students and I don’t think we are going to be able to increase that. We have 10,000 students enrolled in the voucher program now. If we take the income guidelines off the program, I believe that the 5,000 slots would be taken up immediately. Eventually, low-income families would be weeded out due to the large volume of families wanting to participate.

Clowes: Do you have any problem with a for-profit school?

Williams: I’m opposed to for-profit schools. When a school is for-profit, I believe many of the needs of the students will not be addressed because you must limit services based on overhead. The public school system has a very high overhead. If $8,000 is allocated for students in the public schools, less than half actually goes to the education of children.

For-profit schools bring in their own staff with their own ideas, outsiders to the community, thus limiting parental input and taking away the control of educational dollars within the community.

Many for-profit schools, developed under the choice program, are cropping up now in many communities. It’s white folks who live in the suburbs who are coming into our communities and opening up schools that are predominantly black.

Clowes: But if the children get educated, does it matter?

Williams: Well, the Milwaukee Public Schools have mostly white teachers and the children there are not making the grade.

I’m not saying that white teachers can’t teach, because all white teachers taught me. But the teachers back in the 1940s and 1950s were entirely different. For one thing, the teachers’ union didn’t have such a stranglehold, and teachers then were freer to help the students and do whatever they had to do to help the child. I believe teachers now can’t always do what’s best for the child.

Clowes: What are the prospects for getting parental choice legislation passed in other states?

Williams: In Milwaukee, we put the legislation together ourselves. As I said, I think our legislation should be the model for the nation because it really does empower low-income parents.

The public schools are entrenched and parents need options to get out of that system, if it’s not improving, or if it’s not what their children need. The responsibility for educating the children ultimately lies with the parents, but parents need help and support to make the system do what’s right. If the system has been unresponsive, then there needs to be an opt-out for low-income families. We need to help those families opt out if the system is refusing to help them with their child.

In states where you have a large percentage of African-American legislators, they are opposed to vouchers. But they tell me that they support the program I was able to get passed in Milwaukee. African-American legislators seem open to that kind of program, but they’re not drafting the legislation for their states. White conservative Republicans are drafting legislation on this issue but the legislation is not getting the support of the African-American legislators.

For more information …

The 1990 legislation creating the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is posted on at:

The 2001 state code governing the Expanded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is available through PolicyBot.

The 2001 Rules and Regulations governing the program are also available through PolicyBot.

Mikel Holt’s book, Not Yet “Free at Last”: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement (ICS Press, 2000, 294 pages, paperback, $19.95), provides a compelling account of the hard-won battle for school choice in Milwaukee and the central role that Representative Polly Williams played in that struggle. The book is available through at