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What are you curious about when it comes to education in the Milwaukee area?

Milwaukee has prominent role in new book chronicling rise of school choice

Students at Saint Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee in 2019 during a visit by then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Most students at Saint Marcus use publicly-funded tuition vouchers.
Emily Files
Students at Saint Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee in 2019 during a visit by then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Most students at Saint Marcus use publicly-funded tuition vouchers.

With the proliferation of school choice programs across the county, the line between public and private education has blurred.

book cover
Book cover for "The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America," by Cara Fitzpatrick.

That’s the argument of a new book by education journalist Cara Fitzpatrick, titled The Death of Public School.

"If you can go to Catholic school for your entire K-12 education and have that be paid for with public dollars, at what point is that public education?" Fitzpatrick says. "And in a way, isn't that a sort of death of public school?"

Fitzpatrick's book chronicles the rise of school choice, including voucher programs that use taxpayer funding for students’ private school tuition.

Fitzpatrick explains that vouchers were initially used in a handful of southern states, as a tool of white flight during the years leading up to and following Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of public schools.

"The idea for vouchers was that if they couldn't stop desegregation, it would be sort of an escape mechanism and that white students could use school vouchers to pay for all-white private education," Fitzpatrick says.

Courts eventually ended those voucher programs.

Milwaukee birthplace of modern vouchers

Fitzpatrick says Milwaukee was "the perfect place" for school vouchers to make a comeback in 1990.

"Because it had a history already of these independent secular private schools that were well-regarded and were primarily serving Black and Latino students," Fitzpatrick says. "And then you also had a situation where ... there was a certain amount of discontent within the Black community about how the public school system was doing."

In an effort to integrate schools, MPS created specialty high schools that were meant to draw diverse students. But the burden of busing fell disproportionately on Black students. Some Black students were turned away from their preferred school to make room for their white peers.

Sincere Tatum, 18, is one of a handful of black students at Brookfield Central High School. The school is 70 percent white, 4 percent black. “It took a…

Black leaders, including activist Howard Fuller and state Rep. Polly Williams, wanted an alternative. Initially, they proposed the creation of an all-Black school district within Milwaukee. That didn't go anywhere.

Williams, a Democrat, found an unlikely ally in Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who wanted to create a private school voucher program to help low-income Milwaukee students escape failing public schools.

The initial Milwaukee voucher program included just 1,000 students attending seven, secular, private schools.

"The idea was to have a very targeted program, essentially an experiment, to see if this was something that offered an alternative to low-income children in Milwaukee," Fitzpatrick says.

From the start, teachers' unions and the Milwaukee NAACP were opposed to the experiment, predicting it would grow and siphon resources from public schools.

Vouchers expand to religious schools

Thompson expanded Milwaukee's voucher program in 1995 to include religious schools. At the same time, Cleveland launched its own voucher program that included religious schools.

Fitzpatrick says using taxpayer dollars for religious education set the stage for legal challenges.

It was the Cleveland case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the voucher program as legal, clearing the path for public funds to be used for religious schools.

"It centered on the role of parents," Fitzpatrick says. "Because the government is not directly giving state aid to a religious school in a voucher program, they're giving it to a family who then decides how to use it."

Because it's the parents who make the decision to use vouchers for religious schools, the program was seen as not violating the boundary between church and state.

Choice expansion continues

When Republicans swept into state offices in 2010, many took advantage of their power to expand school choice.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker passed legislation expanding Milwaukee's parental choice program to more students by loosening the income restrictions. He also created new choice programs in Racine and statewide.

Meanwhile, charter schools took off. Charter schools are authorized by a school board or other government agency, but have more autonomy and often are not unionized.

They were supported by both Republicans and Democrats, in contrast to vouchers, which are mainly backed by Republicans.

Employees at Milwaukee’s Carmen charter school network are organizing under federal labor laws, through the National Labor Relations Board.

"In large part, charter schools took off as a reaction to vouchers, because it was something that Democrats in particular could say, 'Well we're in favor of choice, but we're in favor of public school choice,'" Fitzpatrick says.

Fitzpatrick says as a whole, neither voucher schools or charter schools have lived up to their original goal of significantly increasing student achievement. "It's not the win that advocates were looking for. There are major studies of school voucher programs that don't necessarily show any difference in test scores, or if there is one, there's actually a decline in some places in math scores."

She says research shows charter schools may have a very small test score advantage over traditional public schools.

In Milwaukee, almost 30,000 students now attend private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers. Milwaukee Public Schools enrollment has fallen to less than 70,000.

In Wisconsin, about 100,000 students attend either a voucher or charter school.

Fitzpatrick says Polly Williams, who helped launch Milwaukee's voucher program, wasn't happy with how it turned out.

"She came to feel that it had been hijacked by conservatives," Fitzpatrick says. "She really believed that it should be a tool of empowerment for low-income families and she resisted efforts to raise the income requirements to allow more middle class or higher families to participate."

This month, the progressive Minoqua Brewing PAC filed a lawsuit seeking to end funding for Wisconsin's voucher and charter school programs. Fitzpatrick says there could be a route to overturn the programs, depending who is on the court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court now has a liberal majority.

But, she says, it would be controversial to take away education options that students have relied on now for 30-plus years.

Fitzpatrick is speaking at Marquette University Law School on Oct. 20.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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