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A Milwaukee election may test voter view of vouchers

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2003

In the birthplace of school vouchers, an upcoming election promises to tell the nation whether those who know the experiment best seem satisfied or disillusioned with its results.

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April 1 will be a day of reckoning for the five pro-voucher representatives who hold a one-vote majority on the nine-member Milwaukee School Board. All five are up for re-election. Four of them, including movement leader John Gardner, face challenges from candidates endorsed by the teachers union, which opposes vouchers.

At issue is not so much survival of the nation's oldest voucher system, since only the Wisconsin Legislature has authority to dissolve it. Yet much hangs in the balance for other districts with burgeoning voucher programs as they watch and wait to see whether the city has, after 13 years, developed confidence or cold feet.

"It's really powerful if a district sees this election and says, 'Gee, it's really working out there, and it's helping us, too,' " says Henry Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College at New York's Columbia University.

But to lose the board's majority in this tacit referendum could potentially derail the dreams of those invested in seeing vouchers succeed elsewhere.

"People tend to follow examples," says Ralph Benko, a Republican consultant to Democrat John Gardner's campaign. "A loss in this race, in my opinion, would begin an erosion of the voucher program."

But for more than 11,000 Milwaukee students, vouchers have become a way of life and they continue to count on public dollars to attend the school of their choice within a network of public, private, and parochial options. Supporters say vouchers have brought healthy competition and options to a system of about 100,000 students, 80 percent of whom are minorities. Critics say vouchers drain money from public-school systems and consequently guarantee failures.

In Milwaukee's races, challengers and their financiers insist vouchers are no longer the issue at hand. More important, says the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, is the need for this divided board to stop infighting and help the city lobby for a larger slice of the state-funding pie.

Vouchers "are the law of the land, and that's not going to change," says Bob Lehmann, president of the MTEA. "I don't care where you stand on vouchers, a school board should be rallying in Madison around these kind of [state-funding] issues."

But pro-voucher candidates tell another story. Mr. Gardner, a life-long labor organizer, has raised half of his $45,000 in campaign cash from voucher advocates outside Milwaukee. Donors ranging from a group of software entrepreneurs to economist Milton Friedman continue to see Milwaukee as an important sign of free-market dynamics improving education. And even though vouchers are universally popular in Milwaukee, he says, the nation would hear a vastly different message if the pro-voucher caucus should lose its grip.

"The teachers union wants to get rid of its one aberration in America" where the board is not controlled by union supporters, Gardner says. "They want to be able to say, 'That was an aberration in Milwaukee, but we got rid of it.' Because if they win in Milwaukee, then they can say, 'No school-board member anywhere can support vouchers and stay in office.' "

Milwaukee became a test case for vouchers in 1990 when a reform-minded legislature enabled 300 low-income students to leave their local public schools and enroll elsewhere in seven religious schools. The school board soon became a lightning rod for the ensuing tension, which on one occasion led to egg-throwing from the board's audience. In 1999, nationally raised funds helped the pro-voucher camp become the first in the nation to hold a majority on a local board.