Milwaukee's lessons on school vouchers
For Destiny Hatcher, private school has made all the difference.Skip to next paragraph
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Once a failing student who often got in trouble, she's now getting good grades as an eighth-grader at the Hope Christian School and is determined to go to college.
"At my old school, the environment I was in was the same outside the school and inside the school," says Destiny, dressed in Hope's tie-and-jacket uniform, her braids pulled back with a headband. "Here, the school's in a bad neighborhood, but the environment in the school is really loving."
Hers is the sort of story Milwaukee's school-choice advocates cite when touting the oldest and largest voucher program in the country. Now it's expanding, but 16 years after it began, the policy is still controversial and has shown few documented benefits.
Proponents say it gives options to low-income kids who might otherwise be stuck in failing schools, and that the competition for students is good for all Milwaukee's schools, both public and private. Critics, meanwhile, cite the money the program drains from public schools and the highly uneven quality of the private ones, which aren't held to the same standards.
As one of the few programs in the country, Milwaukee offers a high-stakes test case for both camps. Yet researchers are only beginning to take a comprehensive look at how successful it's been.
"Now quality is emerging as the key issue," says Dan McKinley, director of Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a scholarship program for Milwaukee children that has been generally supportive of vouchers. "Advocates are getting past the ideological posturing, saying 'choice will fix everything.' Parental choice is a precondition for a quality education, not a panacea."
Choice is something lower-income Milwaukee parents definitely have. Families who make below a set income can get a voucher (worth up to $6,500 in the coming school year) to send their school-age children to a private school, including a religiously affiliated school. In addition to some 125 schools that participate in Milwaukee's program, there are numerous charter schools in the city, and an open-enrollment program through which a few thousand students attend suburban schools.
The quality question - how to weed out the private schools that even voucher advocates admit are bad ones - is something that Mr. McKinley and others hope will be addressed by new rules.
In March, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed a bill that raises the cap on the number of voucher students from 15,000 to 22,500 and also requires accountability measures - such as standardized testing and accreditation - for the first time from the private schools in the program.
It's a step everyone agrees is needed. Voucher supporters had envisioned a system in which parents would choose only good schools, so the worst ones would fall by the wayside due to market forces. But that hasn't proved to be the case.
The voucher program has given new life to venerable Catholic and Lutheran schools in the city, and has spurred the creation of dozens of new schools - many of them religious - that rely solely on voucher students. All told, about 70 percent of the voucher schools are religious. Some of those schools, like Hope, show signs of excellence, but not all.
In one of the worst instances, a convicted rapist opened a school, which has since shut down. Reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tried to visit all 115 schools then in the program last year, and found a mixed bag. Nine schools refused to let reporters in, and the paper cited "10 to 15 others where ... the overall operation appeared alarming when it came to the basic matter of educating children."
One school was opened by a woman who said she had a vision from God to start a school, and whose only educational background was as a teacher's aide. Others had few books or signs of a coherent curriculum. Yet they've been able to enroll students.