Celebrating Milwaukee’s Successful Vision of Urban Education

April 1, 2006

April 2006

Celebrating Milwaukee’s Successful Vision of Urban Education

By Howard Fuller

Fifteen years after parental choice gained a toehold in the world of education reform with just a few hundred families in Milwaukee, the positive results are evident. The city’s experience with choice provides a valuable example for school reformers nationwide.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—the nation’s first school voucher program for low-income families—has grown to nearly 15,000 children in 125 schools. Parents, given the financial means to choose the best school for their children, are eager to do so and schools are eager to serve them. Milwaukee is now home to a strong group of schools and educators dedicated to providing low-income and working class parents with high-quality educational opportunities.

Milwaukee parents can now access private schools through the voucher program, 49 charter schools, 19 public/private “partnership schools” serving at-risk children, and the traditional public schools. Along North Avenue alone, 16 schools—charter, public and private—compete for students where once only two struggling public schools existed. The diversity and innovation on North Ave., dubbed “the main street of American school reform” by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have given real hope to a community in the city’s urban core.

In no other American city do parents, especially poor black parents, have such a wide array of educational choices.

This is possible because education dollars in Milwaukee follow the child, expanding access and providing schools the right incentives to meet children’s needs.

“We do things differently because we have to compete. We have a consciousness of all the options in the community.” —Milwaukee Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos

That critical shift in power from bureaucracy to parents has had far-reaching, positive impacts on Milwaukee Public Schools. The dire prediction that the program would lead to the demise of the Milwaukee Public Schools simply isn’t true. In fact, MPS results suggest the opposite.

Since the introduction of parental choice, MPS enrollment is up, the annual high school drop out rate has declined, state test scores have improved and real spending per pupil has increased.

Traditional public schools in Milwaukee face greater accountability because they must recruit and satisfy parents to maintain their budgets. Budget reforms that allow schools to control 95 percent of MPS operating funds have empowered school leaders. Schools also control teacher hiring, dismantling the tenure system that once shuttled the least experienced teachers to the neediest schools.

MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos recently acknowledged to the Journal Sentinel, “We do things differently because we have to compete. We have a consciousness of all the options in the community.”

To be sure, too many of our children’s educational needs still are not being met. Much work remains to be done, but the real gains of the past 15 years cannot be ignored.

Indeed, those gains enabled advocates to build an effective and diverse coalition of parents, educators, business people, community activists and elected officials. Though badly outnumbered in their party, a group of courageous urban Democrats now back choice because they see the benefits for their constituents. Their numbers will increase as young people, who support parental choice in large numbers, become more involved in political activity.

The need for broad-based support continues because the attacks of choice opponents—mostly orchestrated by the teachers’ unions—never end. After the teachers’ unions and their allies suffered two legal defeats in which the Institute for Justice successfully defended parental choice, the opponents of choice have turned to politics.

Most recently, an arbitrary enrollment cap threatened the very existence of the program. Failure to lift the cap would have led to a state rationing system that would have thrown up to 4,000 students out of their schools. Our coalition undertook a massive campaign to convince union-backed Democratic Governor Jim Doyle to raise the cap, which he finally did, averting a crisis.

After 15 years of school choice in Milwaukee, we know that school choice works for students, schools and our community. We also have learned that our foes will persist. So must we.

Dr. Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent, directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University and chairs the Milwaukee-based Alliance for Choices in Education.

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