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(1912-)
Milton Friedman
 
: Progressive, Apr97, Vol. 61 Issue 4, p20, 3p, 1bw
Peterson, Bob
TEACHER OF THE YEAR GIVES VOUCHERS A FAILING GRADE
One recent winter morning, during the worst cold spell of the year, I found some caulk in my basement and took it to school. I teach at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, which was built in 1903. My classroom's third-floor windows are drafty, and on windy days, the kids who sit near the window often wear jackets to keep warm.
On this particular day, the wind chill was minus forty degrees. The big news--apart from the weather and the Superbowl--was that a Madison judge had declared the expansion of Milwaukee's school-voucher program unconstitutional.
I was relieved by the news. Republicans around the country have been pushing the idea of using publicly funded vouchers to send kids to private school. And Wisconsin has been in the forefront of this effort.
Vouchers are a top item on the conservative agenda. The religious right wants to use them to tear down the wall of separation; between church and state. By using public funds for private, parochial schools, religious conservatives strike a blow against secular, public education. Vouchers serve that purpose, just as they serve the broader conservative movement's goal of cutting government entitlements and denying government responsibility for social services.
For sixteen years, I've taught public school in Milwaukee's central city, and I've been active in school reform. I know that vouchers won't seal the windows at La Escuela Fratney.
Vouchers have been synonymous with Milwaukee ever since 1990, when Wisconsin began an experiment allowing low-income children in the city to use publicly funded vouchers to attend nonreligious private schools inside city boundaries. The courts upheld that original program. In the 1996-1997 school year, some 1,600 Milwaukee students received roughly ,400 each to attend nonreligious private schools.
In 1995, the Wisconsin legislature expanded the Milwaukee voucher program to include religious schools and to allow as many as 15,000 students to take part, but the state suspended the expansion because of a lawsuit charging that it violates the state constitution. Until this fall, when Cleveland began a low-income voucher program that also included religious schools, Milwaukee had the only voucher experiment in the country. (Cleveland's program is also being challenged in the courts, but was allowed to proceed until a final ruling.)
One of the big myths of the school-choice movement is that private schools are always better than public schools.
But in Milwaukee, vouchers gave rise to some fly-by-night private institutions.
The schools that initially took part in the voucher program were longstanding private institutions that, over the years, had built an infrastructure and a reputation attractive to tuition-paying students. Then the project started some new private schools--and they began to fail.
Two voucher schools closed unexpectedly in mid-year amid charges of inflated enrollment figures and missing or fraudulent financial records. Two others were unable to pay their staff regularly, leading to an exodus of teachers and students. A fifth school closed during the summer.
One of the schools that closed, the Milwaukee Preparatory School, may have been obliged to return up to ,000 due to exaggerated enrollment figures, but the state could not complete an audit because of missing financial records. The school's founder skipped town. He was eventually arrested in Texas and charged with criminal fraud. Charges are still pending. The school had claimed in September 1995 that 175 out of its 200 students carried vouchers. By the time the school closed in February, only eighty students remained. Nine out of the twelve teachers had quit because the school hadn't paid them.
The director of another school, Exito Education Center, was charged with felony fraud for falsifying attendance records. During a John Doe proceeding, the school's former office manager told authorities that the director ordered her to fix the books, and threatened her wages if she did not comply. The director has twice failed to appear at court on the charges and a bench warrant has been issued.
In Milwaukee, the conservatives who clamor for higher standards and public-school accountability promoted a private voucher program with virtually no accountability measures. The private schools are not required to have a board of directors, adhere to open meetings or records laws, have grievance procedures for staff or students, or even administer state assessment tests.
It is harder to get a liquor license or set up a corner gas station in Milwaukee than it is to start a private school.
"To set up a school eligible for state funds under the school-choice program, almost all that a wannabe principal has to do is to hang out a shingle," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel complained in an editorial last year. "Standards barely exist; oversight is minimal."
The financial and legislative muscle behind vouchers comes from the conservative movement--national organizations such as the Heritage Foundation or the Institute for Justice; local think tanks such as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the Heartland Institute; Republican politicians such as Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and Ohio Governor George Voinovich. Conservative foundations have provided all-important funding.
Anyone looking into the voucher movement soon comes across two names: Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation and Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice.
The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose assets of million make it the country's most powerful rightwing foundation, has poured millions of dollars into voucher initiatives. Bolick is a libertarian who is perhaps best known as the man who dubbed Lani Guinier "the quota queen."
The Bradley Foundation's president, Michael Joyce, has proclaimed vouchers the only educational reform worth pursuing. The foundation has awarded .8 million since 1992 to Partners Advancing Values in Education, a Milwaukee group that provides partial vouchers to students at religious schools. Bradley has also funneled almost .5 million to the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, whose main education reform is vouchers. When Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson wanted to hire a "dream team" of private lawyers headed by Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr to defend vouchers for religious schools, Bradley agreed to pony up ,000 to the state so it could do so.
The Bradley Foundation also gave almost 1 million to Charles Murray to research and co-author The Bell Curve. Among other things, the book argues that African Americans tend to be intellectually inferior to Asians and whites, and that educational resources should be targeted at the intellectual elite. Not surprisingly, the book's main educational reform is school choice, including public funds for religious schools.
Clint Bolick has been busy promoting vouchers in court cases around the country. He first did so while at the Landmark Legal Foundation (which between 1990 and 1992 received ,000 from the Bradley Foundation), and then with the Institute for Justice. Bolick co-founded the Institute, which has received 000 in Bradley money. (He also helped launch the American Civil Rights Institute in January to dismantle affirmative-action programs.)
The conservative economist, Milton Friedman, came up with the idea of vouchers in the 1950s. Their first public use occurred in the South following the 1954 Brown decision, when white people used vouchers to gain entrance to private academies to avoid attending public schools with African Americans. The courts ultimately struck down that use of vouchers.
During last year's Presidential primaries, the fractured Republican Party was of one mind on vouchers. Even Colin Powell, the man the social conservatives love to hate, supported publicly funded vouchers for private schools.
Conservative politicians, who repeatedly cite the Milwaukee experiment, would love to put voucher programs on the national fast track. They have been hampered by legal questions and voter resistance--particularly in the suburbs. There, dissatisfaction with schools is low. And many suburbanites don't want inner-city students using vouchers to attend their schools. The four times that voucher referenda have been put before statewide voters, most recently in the state of Washington this fall, they have failed by a 2-to-1 margin. (Colorado, California, and Oregon voters have also rejected statewide voucher schemes.)
Conservative voucher advocates love to highlight their support in the black community. Although it is not as popular as conservatives would like to believe, African American support of vouchers is not surprising. African Americans are poorly served by failing public schools and rightly disenchanted with public education.
But the conservative alliance with blacks is fragile.
In Milwaukee, the black politician most identified with vouchers, Democratic state representative Annette "folly" Williams, has increasingly distanced herself from the business and conservative community. She is particularly upset with attempts to allow private schools to screen students and with the business community's increasingly explicit goal of expanding vouchers to all students, not just low-income children.
"We have got our black agenda and they have got [their own] agenda," Williams has said of the business community. "I didn't see where their resources really were being used to empower us as much as to co-opt us."
It is impossible to think about public education without understanding its relationship to democracy. There is no arena in this country with a comparable vision of equality--no matter how much this vision is tarnished in practice--and where people of different backgrounds interact on a daily basis.
When a Dane County judge, Paul Higginbotham, decided against vouchers for religious schools, it was a blow to supporters of school choice around the country. Without the participation of religious schools, which account for about 85 percent of private-school students in Milwaukee, the voucher program can't expand much beyond the 1,600 students who now participate.
In his fifty-one-page ruling, Higginbotham concentrated on church-state issues. "Perhaps the most offensive part" of the voucher plan. he wrote. "is that it compels Wisconsin citizens of varying religious faiths to support schools with their tax dollars that proselytize students and attempt to inculcate them with beliefs contrary to their own. We do not object to the existence of parochial schools or that they attempt to spread their beliefs through their schools. They just cannot do it with state tax dollars."
Voucher supporters had argued that the expanded Milwaukee voucher program would not provide government support to religion but would merely help parents choose the best schools for their children. Higginbotham used promotional materials from those schools to dismiss that view. "The continuing purpose of St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church and Schools is to go and tell the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ for the conversion of unbelievers and the strengthening of believers in faith and Christian living," reads one pamphlet.
As important as the church-state issues are, they are not the only concern.
Vouchers are yet another diversion from the real problems in our failing urban schools. It's easy to chant the mantra of vouchers, as if they could magically transform education. It's much harder to do something about the real needs of urban public-school students.
As a classroom teacher, I am less concerned with competition from private schools than I am with my immediate problems: class size, inadequate facilities, and staff training.
Vouchers only aggravate the already troubling reality that our schools do not serve all children equally well. We have good schools, but they are clustered in affluent communities. There are huge differences between the schools in privileged suburbs and those in urban districts populated by low-income students and children of color.
Vouchers would take precious tax dollars from public schools and divert them to private schools. Milwaukee Superintendent Robert Jasna estimated that if the Milwaukee voucher program had been allowed to expand as planned by the legislature, the Milwaukee public schools could have lost as much as million in funding over four years. They also make it possible for the Wisconsin legislature to pretend it is doing something about reforming the Milwaukee public schools while it ignores them.
Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and other books on education, said it best: "My own faith leads me to defend the genuinely ethical purposes of public education as a terrific American tradition, and to point to what it's done at its best--not simply for the very rich, but for the average American citizen. We need to place the voucher advocates, the enemies of public schools, where they belong: in the position of those who are subverting something decent in America."
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