WHILE the rest of the country has been talking about expanding school choice to provide public funds for private schooling, Milwaukee has been actually doing it. The national spotlight is on this city as the school-choice debate continues. Wisconsin state legislator Annette (Polly) Williams, who sponsored the choice bill, calls the Milwaukee plan a ``model for the nation.''
Last September, about 350 public-school students from low-income families here started attending private, nonsectarian schools at state expense. Dogged by legal challenges, the program's future is still uncertain.
Under the voucher plan, known simply as ``choice'' here, the state pays private schools $2,500 a year for each public-school student admitted. That amount is then deducted from the Milwaukee school system, which spends an average of $5,200 per pupil.
Because only seven private schools joined the program, fewer students were involved than originally expected. All participants come from low-income families.
As the school year ends, about 250 students remain in the choice program. One of the private schools, Juanita Virgil Academy, pulled out in January following a dispute with the state over religion classes, which the law forbids. Most of the school's 63 choice students went back into the public schools.
Opponents of the plan - including former superintendent Robert S. Peterkin and a variety of education organizations - say it undermines the public schools instead of fostering improvement.
``I'm against the inequities in this plan,'' Dr. Peterkin says. The private schools do not offer special education and other programs available in the public schools. In addition, he says, the private schools are not held to strict enough accountability. ``[They have to meet] four standards; I'm held to 26 by the state.''
``Our record attests to our accountability,'' responds Zakiya Courtney, executive director of Urban Day School, a predominantly black private school in the choice program. ``When our children graduate from Urban Day School they go to the very best high schools in the city.''
Urban Day is the most popular school in the program and 90 percent of the choice students say they want to return next year. Here and at several other of the private schools, administrators and parents are reporting success.
Michael and Yvonne Shackelford are relieved to have their two children in the choice program. Patrina is in the sixth grade at Urban Day and Levar is an eighth-grader at Harambee Community School.
``To me, this is our only choice,'' Mrs. Shackelford says. ``We can pick a [public] school we want our kids to go to and they'll tell us, `There's too many black kids in that school. Your kid can't go there.'''
When Patrina and Levar were attending public schools, they had to get up early and take a bus from their home on the predominantly black North Side of the city to schools on the mostly white South Side. The Shackelfords wanted to send Levar to a magnet school in their own neighborhood but because of integration guidelines he was not allowed to go there.
Since going to Harambee, an all-black school on the North Side, Levar's grades have improved from ``D's'' to ``high C's,'' his parents say.
Levar has learned some important lessons this year, his parents say. ``All the teachers he had [at the South Side public school] were white, all the principals he had were white. Everyone that was successful was white. He didn't know black people were anybody.... He didn't know that black people had intellect to do something.''
``When you send children out to the suburbs where it's all precious and lily-white and then they come back down here and they see how they live, you can't explain it to them,'' Mr. Shackelford says.
``Integration in this city was done wrong from the beginning,'' Mrs. Shackelford explains. ``You can't integrate children when you haven't integrated adults. I keep telling them that.''
Joining the choice program has brought a new attitude toward school into the Shackelford's home. Patrina hardly ever brought a book home from public school, Mr. Shackelford says. ``Here she brings home a stack of books every day.''
``The whole family discusses education every day,'' Mrs. Shackelford says. ``There's a new awakening, a new interest. This is something I would have done had I been able to afford it on my own. But it's a blessing to be able to give your child something that you wanted to give them. It feels like a second chance.''
Despite the legal challenge and an uncertain future for the choice program, Mrs. Courtney of Urban Day School is optimistic. ``You can't build a program or a school on politics,'' she says. ``We have planned for business as usual for next year. I personally am confident that choice is here to stay.''