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Barbara J. Miner: The Meaning of Choice

February 8, 2013

What Milwaukee, home of the nation’s oldest school voucher system, can teach us about desegregation, measuring school success, and decoding the rhetoric of “school choice.”

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Image from Flickr via splorp

By Barbara J. Miner

When Gwen Moore walked into Milwaukee’s North Division High School in September 1965, she was terrified.

“North was seen as this jungle,” she explains more than 40 years later. “All black, segregated, inferior.”

Moore had wanted to attend West Division High School, a “white” school closer to home. When she tried to register at West, school officials told her she had to go to North Division. (It would be another decade before the federal courts would order the desegregation of Milwaukee’s schools.)

“My mom was in Texas at a Baptist convention, and I talked to her and said, ‘Mom, they wouldn’t let me go to West,'” Moore recalls.

“Gerrymandering,” her mom muttered.

“Gerry who?” Moore asked.

“Never mind. Go on to North and when I get back we’ll straighten this out,” her mom answered.

Today, “choice” is code for initiatives that funnel public tax dollars into private voucher schools or semi-private charter schools that are beyond the oversight of local school boards.

Now Moore laughs at the story’s irony: by the time her mother returned, Moore had fallen in love with North Division. “I begged my mom to let me stay.” Moore cannot say enough good things about her time at North Division. She uses her experience to underscore that no school should ever be judged—let alone dismissed as beyond redemption—merely because of test scores or its reputation in the media.

In 2004, Moore became the first African American from Wisconsin elected to the U.S. Congress. Over the years, she has spoken forcefully about the need to defend public education.

Moore found both acceptance and courage while a student at North. When she spoke up, students listened. She discovered she had both leadership skills and a passion for politics.

“In terms of social development and leadership skills, North was the most significant part of my life,” she says. By the standards of today’s corporate-oriented school reformers, the North Division High School of 1965—the school that Moore calls “one of the best experiences I ever had”—would have been dismissed as a “failing school.”

A voucher school can ignore basic constitutional protections such as due process and freedom of speech. It can expel students at will. It can discriminate against students on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The term, rarely used before the mid-1990s, is now part of the established educational lexicon. It is invariably hauled out not only to deride urban public schools, but to demand that parents be given “choice.”

A concept as American as apple pie, individual choice has long been considered a component of liberty. In education, used appropriately, it can ensure that public schools are sensitive to the varying needs and preferences of this country’s 50 million public school students. In recent decades, however, the term “choice” has been applied to programs that undermine the very concept of a public education, a concept so fundamental to our democracy that it is protected by every state constitution in the country. Today, “choice” is code for initiatives that funnel public tax dollars into private voucher schools or semi-private charter schools that are beyond the oversight of local school boards.

Lessons from Wisconsin

Wisconsin, which has the country’s oldest and largest voucher program, is well familiar with the rhetoric of “failing schools” and “choice.” As initiatives for vouchers and semi-private charter schools increase—with established programs in Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio, and other states considering proposals—Wisconsin provides important lessons.

For more than 20 years, voucher schools have been a conservative ideologue’s dream: no teacher unions, no governmental bureaucracy, no curricular restrictions. But… these private schools do not out-perform public schools.

In 1990, Milwaukee became the first city to provide vouchers for private schools, under the rationale of providing “choice” for parents. The program involved roughly 340 low-income students at seven community schools.

Over the years, restrictions have been lifted as the voucher movement moves forward with its goal of a universal voucher program that would pay for students to attend either public or private school. Today, almost 25,000 students in Milwaukee receive publicly funded vouchers to attend 112 private schools, with 85 percent attending religious schools. In size, vouchers are almost equal to the state’s second largest school district.

But there’s an interesting catch. Even if every single student at a voucher school receives a publicly funded voucher, the school is still defined as “private.”

As a result, a voucher school can ignore basic constitutional protections such as due process and freedom of speech. It does not have to provide the same level of special education services. It can expel students at will. It can ignore the state’s open meetings and records requirements. It can discriminate against students on the grounds of sexual orientation. The list could go on.

The first use of vouchers was not by poor black parents but by whites hoping to escape desegregation.

For more than 20 years, voucher schools have been a conservative ideologue’s dream: no teacher unions, no governmental bureaucracy, no curricular restrictions. But, despite the rhetoric propelling the voucher movement, these private schools do not out-perform public schools. In 2010, when Milwaukee’s voucher schools were required to administer the state’s achievement tests and publicly release the results, there was a collective gasp of surprise: the voucher schools did no better in reading than their public school counterparts, and were significantly worse in math.

That has not stopped Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or choice proponents, however. They have made clear they want to further develop schools vouchers, private charters, home schooling, and virtual schools.

As Walker noted in his recent State of the State address, he plans to “expand the number of choices” for families in Wisconsin, and “give parents the opportunity to choose legitimate alternatives to failing schools.”

Rhetorical sleights of hand

Before the mid-1990s, the term “failing schools” was all but nonexistent. It certainly, for instance, was not applied to Jim Crow-era segregated black schools in the South that could not even afford desks.

What’s more, the first use of vouchers was not by poor black parents but by whites hoping to escape desegregation. From 1959 until 1964, when federal courts intervened, officials closed all the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia rather than comply with orders to desegregate. White parents took advantage of publicly funded vouchers to attend a newly created private, whites-only academy.

Such an association between vouchers and white supremacy is not useful to today’s voucher advocates. Instead, vouchers have been repackaged as a way to improve academic achievement and to expand parent “choice.” But after more than 20 years, one of the clearest lessons from Milwaukee is that vouchers, above all, are a way to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools. Vouchers, at their core, are an abandonment of public education.

Yes, the rhetoric of “choice” is seductive. As even Gwen Moore well knows.

When a state legislator, Moore voted in support of Wisconsin’s groundbreaking legislation. At the time, she didn’t see any problems.

“The program was small, it was totally secular, it was an experiment, and it was for kids who the Milwaukee Public Schools couldn’t serve for a variety of reasons,” she recalls.

“Of course this is a vote I deeply regret,” she continues, “because I allowed vouchers and then I saw what it came to be. I never was the kind of voucher person who wanted to destroy public education.”

Barbara J. Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist who has covered education for more than 20 years. She is author of the newly released book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New York: New Press).

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