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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2006 / 16 Teves 5766

John H. Fund

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‘He's Throwing Away My Dream’: Guess who's blocking the school door now? | Milwaukee's innovative school choice program has become a beacon of hope for reformers everywhere. But the educational establishment has never accepted its success and is now striking back. A cap on the number of students that can attend the city's private choice schools has been reached, and starting Feb. 1, education officials will implement a rationing plan to allocate the program's available seats. That could disrupt up to 4,000 families and create such chaos among the participating schools that several could be threatened with closure.

In 1995, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson joined with state legislators to expand choice in Milwaukee to include religious schools, but a compromise set a limit on the number of participating students at 15% of the enrollment in Milwaukee Public Schools. Today that means some 14,500 students, and demand is now higher than that for the slots which give $6,351 annual scholarships to students opting for choice schools (The public schools' per pupil spending is about 80% higher).

To make matters worse, the state's Department of Public Instruction has decreed that it will apply the cap not only to the program as a whole but to each participating school. That is, if the cap is enough to meet only 85% of the demand for vouchers, then each choice school would be allowed to fill only 85% of its available seats. The highly regarded Messmer Catholic Schools would lose 248 seats and the acclaimed Urban Day School would be down 225 seats.

The outcomes would be perverse. Schools that exaggerate their capacity wouldn't lose out as much. By contrast, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel pointed out, "schools that play it straight  —   likely the better schools  —   may be victimized by schools that don't and may get fewer than their fair share of students."

State officials won't even draw distinctions in their rationing between top-performing choice schools and proposed new schools that have no realistic chance of opening. Last year Elijah's Brook God's Nation Children School said it planned to open in the fall fall with 350 students but never did. Under the planned rationing formula it would have been allotted some 175 seats while at the same time an even greater number would have been slashed from Messmer's total. "You could not design a more fiendish way to cripple Milwaukee's choice program while still claiming to keep it alive," says Father Bob Smith, who heads Messmer.

The irony is that public educators in Milwaukee believe choice has helped improve all the city's schools. "No longer is MPS a monopoly," says Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent William Andrekopoulos. "That competitive nature has raised the bar for educators in Milwaukee to provide a good product or they know that parents will walk." The city's public schools have made dramatic changes that educators elsewhere can only dream of. Public schools now share many buildings with their private counterparts, which helps alleviate the shortage of classrooms. Teachers, once assigned strictly by seniority, are now often hired by school selection committees. And 95% of district operating funds now go directly to schools, instead of being parceled out by a central office. That puts power in the hands of teachers who work directly with students.

Milwaukee schools are still struggling, but progress is obvious. Students have improved their performance on 13 out of 15 standardized tests. The annual dropout rate has fallen to 10% from 16% since the choice program started. Far from draining resources from public schools, spending has gone up in real terms by 27% since choice began as taxpayers and legislators encouraged by better results pony up more money.

Far from questioning the public-school monopoly, teacher unions are digging in. They have an ally in Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat elected in 2002 with 45% of the vote (a Libertarian candidate got 10%). Running scared in this election year, he claims he wants to raise the cap on Milwaukee's choice program. But he insists on including side issues in any deal with the Legislature. For instance, he demands choice students take standardized tests and have the results made public. But in 2003 he vetoed a bill that would have done just that because the teachers union wanted to block an objective study of choice.

Tomorrow Mr. Doyle will deliver his annual State of the State message. In hopes of influencing him, the Alliance for Choices in Education launched a TV and radio ad campaign Friday calling on him to stop the rationing. "Governor Doyle's just made a big mistake," says a girl enrolled in voucher school in one TV ad. Another says: "He's throwing away my dream."

Teacher unions have their own answer to the collapse of public education in the inner cities: ship truckloads of money to poorer districts in the name of "social justice." But many Milwaukee parents aren't buying that. They have painfully learned that more money spent on a failed system does not produce better education. They want to make their own decisions about their children's future.

In the early battles over establishing the Milwaukee program, opponents backed down only when Milwaukee parents began comparing Bert Grover, then the state school superintendent, to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. The front lines of today's civil rights struggle are not in the South but in Milwaukee.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund