A Real Test For Vouchers

In Milwaukee's bold experiment, some kids gain but others find the private sector isn't much help

Last fall there may have been no bigger fan of school-choice pro grams than Phyllis Purdy. When she heard that the State of Wisconsin would pick up the tab for her two boys to attend private school in Milwaukee, she says, "I just couldn't wait to get them in there. " Her high hopes didn't last long. The private school that accepted her children abandoned the program in February, leaving Deshawn, now 12, Leronne, 11, and 61 others to scramble for space in Milwaukee public schools. Now, instead of watching her boys get a jump ahead, Purdy says mournfully, "I feel like they missed a whole semester of school."

Spending public money on private schools is the most controversial element of President Bush's new education-reform package. The idea is commonly known as a voucher program. Supporters say that if parents are given a wider choice of schools, public and private, in which to enroll their children, the pressure of competition will inspire all schools to improve. Opponents fear that vouchers will gut public schools. Vouchers are considered the most radical form of "parental choice" because the concept allows students to bypass the public system completely-at government expense. It's not an entirely new idea; Vermont has used such a system for more than 100 years in an attempt to avoid building schools in sparsely populated areas. Vermont students can use government funds allocated for their education at any school they want-public or private.

Milwaukee is the first place to use vouchers as a way to turn around inner-city schools. There's no question that the Milwaukee schools need help. Fewer than half of all Milwaukee public-school students ever graduate from high school, according to The Greater Milwaukee Education Trust. But after a yearlong experiment, the report card on vouchers is mixed. Some students have clearly benefited from the effort; others have literally been left out in the cold. As in so many other reforms, reality tends to be more complicated than a think-tank briefing paper would have us believe. "We've had problems simply because of the uncertainty about the program," says John Witte, a University of Wisconsin professor who is studying Milwaukee's system. "Parents don't know what to do. Schools don't know how to operate."

Some of Milwaukee's difficulties grow way the city's program was set up. Under terms established by the state legislature a year ago, after months of political wrangling, only students and schools within the boundaries of the city of Milwaukee are eligible. That eliminates all of the area's suburban private schools.

Inside the city boundaries, there are not enough private-school spaces to give the program a complete test. Any student whose family income was less than 1.75 times poverty-level wages was eligible. The bill allowed up to 1,000 students to enroll, with the state paying $2,442 per student-money that would otherwise have gone to the public schools. But there were places for only 400 at the seven participating schools. In September only 341 kids showed up. And now there are fewer than 260 students and six schools in the program. That's because one school filed for bankruptcy protection in February. Another, the Juanita Virgil Academy-where Purdy sent her sons-abandoned the program after nonvoucher parents demanded the resumption of religion classes. Because that would have violated voucher guidelines, the school chose to quit the program.

Under any circumstances, nonsectarian private schools in low-income neighborhoods face tremendous obstacles. Voucher parents at Juanita Virgil, for example, say facilities there were inadequate, even compared with the crumbling public schools. Leah Wallace, who enrolled her fifth-grade daughter LaKendra, says the building was decrepit and LaKendra's "school bus" was a van without windows or air conditioning. Purdy says her sons never even received books. But parents like Purdy and Wallace were desperate to improve their children's education and willing to try anything that might work.

Market forces may be good for business, say critics, but they can be cruel when children are at stake. Voucher students who lost their places in the private schools had to scramble for space in the public system. "There's a difference between closing a hardware store and closing a school in the middle of the year," says Witte, the University of Wisconsin professor. Opponents of vouchers fear that the program, as it grows, will invite shady operators to prey on vulnerable parents. Herbert Grover, Wisconsin's superintendent of public instruction and a vocal opponent of vouchers, says his office has little authority to discipline questionable school programs. "They're using public funds," he says of the private schools, "and they have no accountability."

But those who favor vouchers say even a flawed attempt at reform is better than nothing. "If this program performs at its worst level, it will still dramatically outperform the public schools," says Clint Bolick of the Landmark Center for Civil Rights in Washington, a group that favors school-choice efforts. Parents report some notable successes in Milwaukee. Witte says that as many as 90 percent of the voucher supported children at one of the schools, Urban Day, want to return next year. Urban Day was the most popular of the seven schools; nearly 300 children tried for 100 available slots, according to Gus Knitt of Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction. With a curriculum based on African culture, the school attracts mostly black students and has an excellent reputation in the community. The voucher program enabled many parents who could not afford tuition to send their kids there.

The most successful schools share some common traits: they are responsive to parents' concerns and they try to maintain close ties to their community. Parents say these schools provide individualized attention that they never found in the public system. Alicia Treadwell was "floored" when teachers at Harambee Community School gave her their home phone numbers. In public school, Treadwell's daughter Arletta, an eighth grader, had perfect attendance, but her grades rarely rose above C; her mother thought she was lost in a class of more than 30 students. At Harambee, an Afrocentric school, Treadwell says, "We watched her C's turn into A's and B's."

In various forms, all of the inner-city private schools promote ethnic pride. It is no small irony that one plank of the conservative education agenda vouchers-is being used in some schools to promote ethnocentric curriculums that other conservatives regard as academically questionable. Bruce-Guadalupe Community School focuses on Latin American culture. A Mexican flag hangs from the wall of one classroom. In another, a poster of Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti adorns the blackboard. Emphasizing a child's heritage can pay unusual dividends. Principal Karl Polm-Faudre tells the story of one problem youngster who mended his ways after he learned about the glories of Aztec culture.

Despite these successes, it's not clear whether there will be a second year of the voucher trial. Legal challenges have dogged the program since it sprang from the legislature; the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to rule on the program's constitutionality by the fall. The Bush administration won't be alone in paying close attention to the decision. New Hampshire and Illinois are in the midst of courtroom fights over public-private support as well. Once again the future of the classroom will be decided in the courtroom.

Milwaukee has school problems that are typical of big cities. Some statistics from the 1989-90 school year:

OnIy 41 percent of 10th graders test at or above the national average for math.

OnIy 38 percent of fifth graders test at or above the national average for reading.

More than half of the district's 98,371 students are eligible for free or cut-rate lunches because their families live at or below the poverty level.

Hispanics and blacks fare particularly badly. Only 33 percent of Hispanics and 32 percent of blacks complete high school.