In 1990, Wisconsin lawmakers hit on a new way to boost the academic skills of poor kids in urban public schools: Let them leave.
So they established a program in Milwaukee to fund vouchers for 300 public-school students. The funds would go toward private-school tuition.
Almost a decade and numerous court challenges later, 6,000 children are using these public-school exit visas worth nearly $5,000 per child - and this dramatic opening shot in a decade of school reform is still a hot-button issue.
To outraged critics, they are a guarantee that already-struggling schools will founder, drained of much-needed cash and political support. They also argue that studies to date have failed to clearly demonstrate academic improvement among those who accept vouchers.
"The word 'voucher' generates fear and anxiety, even when you're dealing with the smallest number of students," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
But to supporters, vouchers boost the academic performance of urban students, empower poor families, and force the public schools, threatened by loss of money, to improve. And the ranks of such advocates are growing.
Walter Sava, director of the Bruce-Guadalupe School in Milwaukee, has no doubt that vouchers have forced public schools to think differently. The private, pre-K-through-eighth-grade school was on the verge of closing in 1990. It had only 150 students, and its $650 tuition couldn't cover bills but was still too high for most inner-city families.
Then came vouchers. By last year, with 65 percent of its students taking advantage of the program, the school had expanded to more than 500 students. Eighty percent of its third-graders scored at or above grade level on state tests. By combining vouchers with other funding, the Bruce-Guadalupe School was able to refurbish its facilities, sharpen its curriculum - and apply to become a charter school.
Result? Rather than continue to lose the voucher money to the popular school - and even more funds if Bruce-Guadalupe became a charter - the Milwaukee Public School system enlisted the school to act as a contractor for MPS. It gave the school a large percentage of the state's per-pupil funding allowance and continued to respect its autonomy.
School choice, Dr. Sava says, "gave me a bargaining chip." Just a few years ago, "We took whatever MPS gave us and thanked them for it. Now we can sit down at the table and negotiate."
But MPS, which educates 105,000 children - and this year lost about $28 million in state funding to voucher programs - has changed more than the way it deals with newcomers to its turf. It's also doing some of its own housecleaning and forging new agreements:
*All students entering kindergarten next year who cannot read at grade level by Grade 2 will receive free tutoring.
*Merit, not seniority, will be used in staffing decisions at 12 schools, with unions exercising less control in hiring and firing.
*Existing public schools may convert to charters.
*Summer-school programs will be restored, and after-school programs will triple.
*Class-size reductions will expand next year to 50 primary schools, from 14 currently.
The schools say that many of these changes were under way, and that others have been prompted by the arrival last year of a new superintendent, Alan Brown. But Howard Fuller, a former district superintendent who is professor of education at Marquette University here and a vocal supporter of vouchers, says that vouchers and school choice provided a much-needed prod.
That's not to say Professor Fuller is content. "I don't want to make overstated points about what's happening," he says. "[Vouchers] haven't had an overwhelming impact on the system thus far. You're not going to see that kind of return until you get a certain critical mass."
Currently, only 25,000 students nationwide participate in public or private voucher programs. But last November, the US Supreme Court let stand a ruling supporting Milwaukee's program, which allows the use of vouchers for private and parochial schools, thus putting the program on more-solid footing.
Today, public-voucher programs exist in only two cities: Milwaukee and Cleveland. About 10,000 students use them. (Milwaukee could accommodate more, but income eligibility limits the number.) Florida is considering a statewide voucher program, as are Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Texas.
About 15,000 students nationwide have left public schools using privately funded scholarships. That number will jump in April, when the New York-based Children's Scholarship Fund will give away 40,000 scholarships.
Much of the controversy surrounding vouchers centers on their impact on academic performance. Several recent studies of Milwaukee students have failed to provide conclusive evidence that voucher students perform significantly better than their peers in public school. Other studies show better results but have been criticized for lack of breadth.
John Witte, political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and author of one study, says it's a myth that vouchers are giving fresh chances to large numbers of kids. Only 25 to 30 percent of Milwaukee's voucher users are new to private school, he says.
Advocates of vouchers also overlook more overarching concerns, says Marshall Smith, deputy secretary of the US Department of Education. "One of the great strengths of America has been its ability to assimilate different groups," he says. "The great machine that has done [this] has been the public schools."
Yet vouchers can promote inclusiveness by giving opportunity to disenfranchised groups like low-income urban parents, argues Caroline Hoxby, associate professor of economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "They're consumers now," she says. "Before they couldn't be bothered to learn about the system. Now they're much more active."
For reformers like Sava, the issue is simple: "The system we had was not producing." Vouchers have promoted change, he says, and even after the fights fade away, "That will still be here."