Milwaukee School Choice

Jackson v. Benson
Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Expanded Milwaukee School Choice Program 

Begun in 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the nation’s first publicly funded school choice program for low-income children.  The product of an alliance between enterprising Democratic state legislator Polly Williams and Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, the program started as a modest proposal to deal with Milwaukee’s educational crisis and slowly gained popularity.  By 1995, demand began to outstrip the capacity of secular private schools, so the legislature expanded the program to include religious schools.

That move invited the second legal challenge to the program, with the teachers’ unions and other special interest groups arguing that allowing parents to choose religious schools violated the federal Establishment Clause, as well as the religion provisions (“compelled support” clause and Blaine Amendment) of the Wisconsin Constitution.  (IJ defeated the first legal challenge on behalf of state Rep. Polly Williams and others when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program in 1992.)

In June 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the claims of choice opponents, allowing the expansion of the program to religious schools and extending educational opportunity to thousands of low-income Milwaukee children.

For more information about school choice in Milwaukee and nationwide, visit our comprehensive School Choice Media Kit.

Essential Background


Backgrounder: none available

Client Photo - none available

Latest Release: Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Improves Education & Saves Money—But Can It Survive the Latest Political Attack? (June 2, 2009)

Client Video - none available

Launch Release: Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds School Vouchers (June 10, 1998)

Legal Briefs and Decisions

none available

Case Timeline

Union Complaint Filed:


August 1, 1995

IJ Intervention Filed:

August 2, 1995   

Court Filed:


Dane County Circuit Court for the State of Wisconsin



March 30, 1996: Wisconsin Supreme Court (which decided to take the case directly, bypassing the trial court) deadlocked, sending the suit back to trial court


January 15, 1997: Trial court Judge Paul Higginbotham struck down the expansion of the Milwaukee program to include the choice of religious schools


August 22, 1997: Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court decision striking down the program



June 10, 1998: Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld Milwaukee school choice program as constitutional



Case Completed

Additional Releases

Maps, Charts and Facts

Release: Release: U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Wisconsin School Choice Decision (November 9, 1998)

Analysis of Milwaukee Decision



Op-eds, News Articles and Links

Video: Where does the alphabet end?; (August 23, 2010)

Article: Celebrating Milwaukee’s Successful Vision of Urban Education, Liberty & Law (April 2006)

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