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IJ Works Wonders: Defending School Choice in Milwaukee

As part of the Institute for Justice’s 30th Anniversary celebration (1991-2021), our “IJ Works Wonders” series looks back on IJ cases that fundamentally transformed the law and the lives of our clients.

“What difference has IJ made for my daughter, Bianca?” Pilar Gomez Gonzalez asks.

“The difference is her life.”

In 1997, Bianca Gonzalez was about to be consigned to Doerfler Elementary School, a chronically failing Milwaukee public school whose students even to this day average reading and math proficiency scores in the teens.  Doerfler has failed to educate one generation of children after another, and Pilar, like every parent, wanted better for her child.  Pilar wanted a choice.

But she lacked the resources to vote with her feet and get Bianca into a better school.  That is, until Wisconsin created the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—a groundbreaking voucher program that was instantly challenged by the teachers’ union because it transferred power from the union-dominated educational establishment to parents like Pilar.

The Institute for Justice sprang to Pilar’s defense.  IJ represented Milwaukee parents who wanted to select the private school of their choice, including religious schools, but who were prevented by a court injunction from exercising that power.  Bianca would be forced to attend the school assigned to her by her ZIP Code rather than her parents’ choice.

IJ prevailed before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, clearing the way for Bianca to attend Prince of Peace Elementary School—the school of her mother’s choice—as well as Pius XI High School.  Thanks to the quality education she received, and the extra attention Pilar said that her daughter needed, Bianca went on to earn her undergraduate degree in English from Alverno College as well as dual master’s degrees in Organizational Development and Instructional Design.

Rather than struggling to overcome a poor public school education, Bianca is flourishing.  For years, she made the most of her education by recruiting teachers for private schools in Milwaukee and beyond.  By recruiting teachers with the strength, focus and commitment to teach inner-city kids, Bianca ensured other at-risk students who select schools like she did get the same high-quality education that has made her a success.  She went on to serve as a human resources specialist in talent acquisition, training and development in social services, ensuring the elderly and disabled get access to services that allow individuals to foster their independence.  And the Milwaukee school choice program has inspired similar reforms that empower parents and education students in Arizona, Cleveland, Indiana, Montana and across the nation.  It all started with Milwaukee.

Pilar said, “IJ created a ripple effect that keeps going and hasn’t stopped.  And it won’t stop as long as the program exists.  It is not just impacting one child, but entire schools and communities.”

“All I can say is that IJ works wonders,” Pilar said.

John E. Kramer is IJ’s vice president for communications.

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