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.
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.
With one term under their belts, these pro-voucher candidates are seeking reelection with fresh assurance from a June 2002 US Supreme Court decision that said public funds may be used at religious schools as long as parents have a range of secular choices as well. This new playing field means the pro-voucher team has become part of the educational establishment in Milwaukee, according to Frederick Hess, an education-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute. It stands to lose more in a one-seat defeat, he says, than it would gain even from a five-seat victory sweep.
"If you're at a country club in a golf competition and you keep beating the same guy, it's hard to say you're on a roll," says Mr. Hess, who wrote "Revolution at the Margins" (Brookings, 2002), a study of the effect of vouchers in Milwaukee; Cleveland; and Edgewood, Texas. "But if the union can knock off several of these folks, and particularly Gardner, they can use this to say, 'Look, Milwaukee knows vouchers better than anybody else, they have more experience with them, and they're having second thoughts.' "
Some Milwaukee schools may also be having second thoughts. Although Wisconsin was the first state to embrace school vouchers, it's been one of the last to permit charter schools. But since a charter-school law was enacted three years ago, six Milwaukee private schools that had been relying heavily on school vouchers have since switched to charter-school status.
Their defection to the newer reform is easy to understand: Charter schools receive $6,900 per student in state funding, while vouchers offer only $5,700 per student.
But as for the election, its outcome in April may not radically alter the direction of Milwaukee public schools. While a different majority would focus on lobbying in the state capitol, Gardner says his team would decentralize the way the city's high schools are administered. Neither side intends to tamper with vouchers per se.
Nevertheless, if the board remains divided, observers say acrimony is sure to persist. And if the majority shifts to the opposite side, Mr. Levin of Teachers College says, vouchers may face a passive resistance and tensions "will get worse."
The board "can make life difficult to the degree that it doesn't cooperate," Levin says, noting its ability to block private schools from using a public school's gymnasium, for instance. "This thing is so ideological.... What you're going to do [if the voucher camp loses one or more seats] is have a board embroiled in conflict."
Key dates for school vouchers:
1955: University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman proposes that all parents be given vouchers to cover the cost of their children's education and then be permitted to use them at the private school of their choice.
1990: Wisconsin passes legislation enabling Milwaukee to become the nation's first school system to use publicly funded vouchers.
1996: Cleveland launches its own state-financed school- voucher program.
1998: The Wisconsin Supreme Court supports the use of vouchers in religious schools.
1999: Pensacola, Fla., initiates its own school-voucher program. But that same year, the Ohio State Supreme Court rules that Cleveland's voucher program violates the separation of church and state.
2000: Voters in Michigan and California soundly defeat state-wide voucher initiatives.
2002: In a 5 to 4 decision, the US Supreme Court rules that publicly funded school vouchers do not violate church-state separation, allowing use of vouchers at a range of religious and secular schools.
2003: The programs in Milwaukee; Cleveland; and Pensacola, Fla., are still the only three state-funded voucher programs in the US. About 11,000 students in Milwaukee, 4,000 in Cleveland, and 50 in Pensacola use vouchers.