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Milwaukee Voucher Program Turns 25: What It Has Taught

The city's education scene is much more diverse than in 1990, when school choice started here, but overall student achievement has barely budged.

Student test scores in the city remain among the lowest in the country, yet there are small indications of improvement, such as in graduation rates.

People who've watched Milwaukee's school landscape transform, offered us the following observations and lessons learned.

Howard Fuller (national school choice advocate) interview excerpts:

“The one thing that I’ve learned is that choice is very important, and it’s particularly important to those families that don’t have the means. The second thing that I’ve learned is that a voucher program is a financial mechanism; it is not a school. I knew that, but that has been reaffirmed for me. What’s still important is creating great schools, so that once people exercise that choice, the choice will be a quality school for their kids.

"We clearly have a long way to go in Milwaukee...because we all know that the program has allowed some really terrible schools to get created, over time. But it has also allowed some great schools, and then, some sort of, middle-of-the-road schools. What I’m hoping we will do, over the next 25 years, is to shut down those places that do not work well for kids, work to improve those schools that can be improved and replicate and expand the schools that are doing well.

"The devil is in the details - it’s all in terms of how you formulate the program. For example, having 'barriers to entry' as a way to vet people before they are allowed to create schools. The trick is to have accountability mechanisms that don’t stifle entrepreneurship and creativity, (yet) give schools an opportunity to show growth, over time.

"I would say is that the strength of a voucher program or a choice program like this, is it gives you a way to create new schools. It can bring a different energy into the education sector that wouldn’t otherwise be there. The weakness is, the flip side of that, and that some people come into it, not with serving kids as their motivation.

"(This) is what democracy is about – you give people the ability to choose and they’re...going to do good things and sometimes they’re not going to do good things.  

"The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that people who should be friends are enemies because of the program, either for philosophical reasons or political reasons; people who would otherwise work together and probably care about kids in the same way...To some extent, I think the difference of opinion has to be there, just because of the nature of the program, but I don’t think the level of animosity and personal acrimony has to be there, because that is what prevents people from finding ways to work together.

"With the three sectors (public, voucher, charter) we have in Milwaukee, if we had the political will do to so, we could turn it into a powerful way to educate kids, but I just don’t think the political will is there to come together, in the way that we would have to do it.

"I think the question is, whether or not this generation or the next generation can get rid of the age-old battles that people like me have helped create...and allow (future) generations to do something different? People have got to realize - you’re going to have a whole generation of children who will grow up and have never known that there wasn’t a time when you had choice. So the idea...that you can go back to the way that it was, I don’t think that can be done. So the question is going to be, how smart are we to take advantage of what we have created."

Rob Rauh (CEO of Milwaukee College Prep) interview excerpts:

"When the voucher movement was born, (it) was seen as kind of the catalyst change. Just having voucher schools was going to raise the tide and really make dramatic change in schools. That’s was what was going to push more quality schools. I think we’ve learned, over the years and sometimes unfortunately, that it didn’t do what we thought it was going to do 25 years ago, in terms of creating better schools for all children within the city.

"The thing now is, everybody is just focused on what’s a quality school and how to do we create high quality schools for all children, regardless of whether they’re voucher schools or charter or traditional public schools. And that has been refreshing, I think it’s a great change. When we sit down now at a collaborative meeting in the city, to talk about best practices, whether that’s academics or culture, there are people at that table from the traditional public schools, from charter schools, from the choice schools and that’s not what matters anymore. What matters is whether you are focused on getting better.

"The other thing I think has dramatically changed, is the sense of accountability. When the voucher movement was born, the accountability was totally in the parents’ hands. The parents are going to choose whether their children go to a school or not, and if it’s a lousy school they’ll leave, and the school will get shut down. It happened a couple of times, but not very often. We realized, over time, those of us involved in the movement, there needed to be a greater degree of accountability within the voucher movement. So that is where it’s moved a little bit.

"What I have experienced, just on the north side of Milwaukee, is that it is very much of a relationships-based area. (The parents) want to know the people who are running the school and teaching in the school, before they entrust their children. Sometimes people say, it’s just that the parents don’t care in the central city -that’s the farthest thing that we have found, from the truth. There is this huge passion about their children getting a good education.

"(School) growth is organic – it comes parent to parent. Going out and putting out yard signs is not going to fill a school. What is going to fill a school is a parent going to their church or beauty parlor or grocery store, and running into other parents and saying, hey my child’s getting a great experience at..."

"The number one thing about what works (in schools), is the people. It’s a human resource – finding great people to work in your schools and having a common vision, getting people to buy into that vision and then giving them the tools they need to be successful. There’s not a lot of magic. From there we go on to time on task, high expectations, sweating the small stuff and helping children envision a future that may be is different from when they walked in the door."

"You need to be able to not only teach and have children grow academically, but most importantly, they have to have character...a determining factor lots of times as to whether children succeed in college is not about academics, it’s about character and whether they have the grit and perseverance and those kinds of skills that are necessary."

UW Emeritus John Witte (studied Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) interview excerpts:

"The first thing clearly (that we have observed) - there is a big demand for choice in Milwaukee.

"Second, the families in choice are clearly very poor families and whose kids are failing in school. They have lower test scores than the average kids. They tend to be heavily African American and Hispanic and from single parent families. So the kids are not doing well in the public schools, and they are looking for an alternative.

"The third thing we’ve learned is that the parents, when we ask on surveys are they happy with their schools, they are very, very satisfied with the voucher program – no one can contest that. Now there’s also satisfaction with public school kids public with their schools, as well, but it’s higher in the voucher program and higher in the charter schools too.

"In terms of achievement, we have learned that when we look at value-added achievement, which is the changes over time with the same kids, how much are they gaining, in terms of achievement, it’s basically the same between the public and private schools. There is no difference. Now the private school kids start at a much lower level, but they gain about the same as the public school kids do.

"The last thing we’ve learned is that we do believe in this (most recent) sequence (of reviewing performance), the kids are graduating from the private schools at a higher rate than the public schools. It’s not an enormous difference – it’s between 4-7% higher, but that is actually is a large percentage increase in terms of graduation rates, and it means an awful lot to the children involved...they also had higher rates of going to college, and they had higher persistence rates. So we’ve learned that after three semesters, they are likely to still be in college.

"What we do know for sure (is) the choice atmosphere in Milwaukee is now embraced equally by the public and private schools. Literally the public schools Milwaukee – there are probably more choices offered to parents in Milwaukee, than in any other school district in the country. I think that’s been true since the early 1990s. They got on board with choices...they try all kinds of new programs, and there’s great imagination and innovation going on.

"I think there are positive signs in Milwaukee (but) you are constantly fighting an uphill battle, in all of these schools, because Milwaukee is a very poor city. There are a lot of people below the poverty line and there are family structural problems that are difficult to deal with, and as long as those persist, and there hasn’t been much change in those data, it’s going to be very difficult for schools to cope with this, public or private...if we can get some kind of a movement, doing something about poverty in the area, I think we’d see a dramatic increase in the schools."

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