Taxpayers' Dollars For Church Schools

Milwaukee debates expanding 'voucher' system

Juan and Pilar Gonzalez wanted to send their son to a school run by their church, but they couldn't afford the $900-a-year tuition. So when they heard that the State of Wisconsin would provide a check to help offset the expense, they pulled the fourth grader from public school and enrolled him in a private Roman Catholic school.

The Gonzalez family is part of the expanding Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, a five-year-old experiment in education reform also known as the "voucher system."

Originally, the program provided state money for a fraction of Milwaukee's lower-income parents to send their children to a private, nonsecular school of their choice. Then, in time for this school year, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and a coalition of Milwaukee parents and business leaders pushed through legislation to increase the number of students in the program - and more dramatically, to allow parents to choose church-run schools.

The law, the first of its kind in the nation, drew immediate fire from some minority groups, school teachers' representatives, and civil libertarians concerned about the eroding wall of separation between church and state. Last fall, the state Supreme Court temporarily blocked implementation of the law.

But it has also raised hurrahs from education reformers who believe competition is the solution to school reform. "I need to have somebody who reinforces the morals, values, and discipline I teach at home," Mrs. Gonzalez says. "They don't do that in the public school system."

Wisconsin's Supreme Court this spring deadlocked 3 to 3 over the law's constitutionality and has remanded the case back to the Dane County Circuit Court. A trial date has not been set, but both sides are preparing for a heated battle - and all agree the case is eventually likely to be heard by the US Supreme Court.

"This program has very little to do with helping kids in Milwaukee," says Christopher Ahmuty of the ACLU of Wisconsin. "It's to promote religion, whether the taxpayer can agree with that or not."

Because a majority of private schools here are Catholic, excluding church-backed institutions from the choice program would limit parents' options, says Howard Fuller, professor of education at Milwaukee University and former superintendent of Milwaukee public schools. "Without [inclusion of church-supported schools], there would be a limited number of seats. It would be hard to have a program large enough to impact on the total system."

Meanwhile, families who enrolled their youngsters in religious schools, expecting the state to pick up the tab, were caught in a pinch when the state's high court temporarily barred expansion of the choice program. Most, like the Gonzalez family, obtained funding from a private foundation that promotes education at religious and other independent schools.

"We didn't turn any kids away," says John Norris, superintendent of Catholic schools in Milwaukee. "We redoubled our efforts with PAVE [Partners Advancing Values in Education, a private foundation] and were able to raise money to pay all the tuition."

"My son has excelled in private school," says Mrs. Gonzalez. "If it's possible to excel 1,000 percent, I'd say that. He loves it there."

Setting aside the church-state controversy, the report card on the school choice program is still out.

John Witte, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied the choice program since its inception. "In terms of [student] achievement scores, private schools don't do any better than public schools."

Milwaukee's public schools rank among the worst in the nation, but some educators here warn that choice is not a panacea. Accountability is a major problem, says Barbara Miner, a writer for Rethinking Schools, a publication of an independent group of reform-oriented teachers. For example, private schools do not have to provide the same achievement testing public schools provide, she says.

But advocates for the voucher system say it offers lower-income residents options long available to wealthier citizens.

"Milwaukee ranks first among the 47 Great City districts in dropouts," writes Daniel McGroarty in his book "Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice." At North Division High School, whose student population is 99 percent African-American, "more than 53 percent of ... [the] 1987 freshman class dropped out before graduation in 1991."

"I've seen the kind of satisfaction that comes over [parents] when their children are in a happy environment," says Zakiya Courtney, head of Parents for School Choice and former executive director of the private Urban Day School, a choice participant.

Greg Marks's daughter, Victoria, attends Urban Day. Last year she attended public school. "She never came home with homework or books to read," says Mr. Marks. "Victoria brings reading, science, and English home now."

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