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Milwaukee Voucher Program Turns 25: The Biggest Player

Marge Pitrof

Nearly all 2,000 students enrolled St. Anthony School on Milwaukee's south side are attending the Catholic K-12 school on a state voucher.

The school has the highest number of voucher students of any school in the U.S., according to the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group. The number translates into about $14 million public dollars heading to St. Anthony this year. Wisconsin generally pays schools between $7,000 and $8,000 for each child in the program, to cover the cost of their education.

Before Wisconsin expanded its Milwaukee voucher program to include religious schools, St. Anthony faced an uncertain future. It had been educating children on the south side for more than 120 years – for much of that time, the kids of Polish immigrants, but by the mid 1990's, enrollment was dropping, as costs rose and the neighborhood changed.

Today, the school's 2,000 students are spread across more than half a dozen buildings, including a former bowling alley and an old industrial site.

What you see inside St. Anthony are kids in uniforms – the older ones, in blazers and ties. Religious symbols hang everywhere, and classrooms buzz with activity.

What has fueled the school’s extensive growth? President Zeus Rodriguez says things started turning around in 1998 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court became the first high court in America to let religious schools join a publicly-funded voucher program.  Since then, state leaders have removed the cap on how many kids can participate and added families with middle-class incomes.

"When parents don’t have the boundary or the wall of money, you can see which way they start to gravitate,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says parents cite the same reasons for enrolling their kids at St. Anthony.

Credit Marge Pitrof
St. Anthony School owns thousands of square feet on the south side, ripe for development, including perhaps into a field house.

“These are Latino immigrants, primarily from Mexico, who, in Mexico, Catholic schools like this are for the rich, because they know how much value it brings to their future. So they come here and they see what we’re doing and they want to bring their kids here, and they want the holistic part of it,” Rodriguez says.

Across town, on the city’s north side, about 175 African American students are enrolled in Jared C. Bruce Academy. The voucher school is affiliated with Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, located next door.

As we saw on a recent visit, it’s a school where assignments listed on the blackboard include reading the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. Principal Jerry Fair says many of the voucher students come from unchurched families, yet the parents want their kids here.

“We don’t have a lot of fighting and bickering and wasting time on student discipline. I think a lot of times parents make the choice based the word of mouth that it’s a safe school; making sure that their children are in a good environment, a nurturing environment,” Fair says.

Class sizes here average fewer than 20 students, considerably smaller than at nearby Milwaukee public schools. Yet Fair admits, none of Jared C. Bruce’s teachers are licensed, and it was clear some were just being introduced to their work. The principal says the school doesn’t get enough money to hire more qualified teachers.

When it comes to state test scores, almost no students at Jared C. Bruce rated as proficient in reading or math last year. At St. Anthony, scores were better – around the average for Milwaukee.

While many parents have made good academic choices for their children, many others have picked schools for reasons that have little to do with the quality of education. Strong factors include word of mouth or involvement in a church.

William Andrekopolous learned a lot about parental priorities, while he was superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 2002 to 2010. It was a period when MPS enrollment declined, in large part due to vouchers.

"What we found in surveys and conversations we had with parents - many parents would choose a school because a relative went to that school. Many parents would choose that school because of the different mode of transportation that was offered at that school. They might choose the school because of after-school programming. Parents sometimes chose the school because the school offered uniforms. Sometimes parents chose a school because the time that the school started was consistent with them working. So, to say that a parent is choosing the school because of the quality of education, we never got that,” Andrekopolous says.

When Wisconsin’s Legislature approved the voucher program a quarter century ago, some supporters used the word “panacea.” They said, if parents got the power to choose private schools, they would chose good ones - and that would drive improvement across all parts of Milwaukee’s troubled education scene. But some parents have chosen schools with poor records.

“So in that sense, in those cases, this whole philosophy and theory of parental school choice does kind of fall apart,” according to Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas who led a five-year research project on Milwaukee schools.

“The idea is that parents will initiate a stampede to quality. In some cases, in some of the schools in Milwaukee, they really have not been doing that and these perennially low performing schools in terms of test scores, continue to operate,” Wolf says.

While Milwaukee parents may pick both private and public schools that fail their kids, Howard Fuller insists families still need the power to choose. Fuller is a nationally prominent voucher advocate who once headed MPS.

“The strength is to give people a way to find better educational environments for their kids. That is what democracy is about, you give people to the right to choose and they're going to do good things and sometimes they're not going to do good things,“ Fuller says.

School Choice is now deeply rooted in Milwaukee’s education landscape, and polls have shown parents like the program. Yet giving them the power to choose has not driven big improvement in the educational success of a city.

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