WI Democrats Vote Again to Slash Vouchers

Published June 1, 2002

In the Spring of 2001, Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate voted to slash funding for the Milwaukee voucher program by half and to limit further participation to students already enrolled in it.

This year, they did themselves one better, voting to cut the program’s funding for next year to less than half its current funding … and to less than one-fifth the following year.

The Democrat-controlled Senate eliminated from the state budget the $23 million in state aid that permits more than 10,000 low-income city children to attend private schools through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The Republican-controlled Assembly had approved a budget without cuts to the choice program. The two budget bills must now be reconciled.

“I’m disappointed that [Senate Democrats] continue to attack the children of Milwaukee,” Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Brookfield) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We had to rescue them from the Democrats’ attacks in the last budget, and I guess we’ll have to do it again.”

Voucher Proponent Named to MPS Board

The Senate vote came on April 5, just three days after Milwaukee voters overwhelmingly backed the election of a strong supporter of the voucher program to the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Board of Directors.

Barbara Horton, a former acting superintendent of MPS, won a decisive 58 percent of the vote over Annie Wacker, who garnered 42 percent. Wacker opposed school choice and was endorsed by the national and local affiliates of the teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Horton’s election puts the reform members of the school board back in the majority. They gained ascendance in the school board elections of 1999, defeating a slate of candidates supported by the teacher unions and other opponents of school choice. However, their majority was reduced in the April 2001 election and the board became deadlocked on reform strategy when a swing board member, Donald Werra, resigned last September. As a result, the reform initiatives pursued by Superintendent Spence Korte had lost steam.

“[Horton’s election is] a decisive victory for decentralization, for parents and teachers having a strong input in MPS schools, and for fiscal responsibility,” at-large board member John Gardner told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Gardner is a strong supporter of school choice as a means of improving MPS.

“The children are the winners here,” said Horton, noting she prevailed in spite of what she called “nasty rumors, smear tactics, and dirty politics.”

Getting the Message?

Although it was Horton’s support for school choice that Wacker and her endorsers most opposed, the publicity campaign against Horton did not attack her for supporting choice, as the 1999 campaign against John Gardner had done. Political observers consider that evidence of a growing awareness on the part of school choice opponents that a strategy of running against choice is no longer likely to win over voters.

Apparently unaware of the new dynamic, three of four Democratic Milwaukee-area state senators joined the Democratic majority in voting on April 5 for a state budget that included a dramatic cut-back in funding for the 10,882-student school choice program.

Instead of funding vouchers for Milwaukee’s poor children at $5,780 per student next year, Democrats approved $2,000 for K-8 students in 2002-03 and $1,000 in 2003-04. Vouchers for students in grades 9-12 were cut to $3,000 in 2002-03 and $1,500 in 2003-04.

“I’ve never agreed with having public money going into private schools,” declared Senator Russ Decker (D-Wausau), who proposed the plan to cut the school choice program.

The three Milwaukee senators who voted for the budget with the voucher program cuts were Gwendolynne Moore, Richard Grobschmidt, and Brian Burke. In later comments, however, Moore and Grobschmidt voiced their opposition to the cuts in the school choice program.

Milwaukee Senator Gary George, a candidate for governor, made his opposition to the funding cuts clear by breaking with his colleagues and not voting for the budget, which he called “obviously punitive.” Decker was “especially insensitive to the needs of minority children,” George told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Beyond Rallies”

A week after the Senate vote, at a rally organized by former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller, hundreds of school choice supporters gathered to condemn the slashing of voucher program funds. Labeling the cuts “uncalled for and unacceptable,” Fuller suggested to the crowd of parents that the movement needed to move “beyond rallies.”

“We’re going to have to start voting for people who support us and voting out those who don’t,” he told the choice supporters, according to a Journal Sentinel account of the meeting.

“We’re going to fight those who are trying to oppress us and oppress our children,” said voucher parent Tony Higgins.

For more information …

For a discussion of last year’s effort to cut funding for the Milwaukee voucher plan, see “WI Democrats Vote to Slash Voucher Funding,” School Reform News, August, 2001.