In 1990, the Milwaukee School Choice program served only 341 students in seven schools. Last year, nearly 29,000 students – 1 in 4 Milwaukee school children – used it to attend 129 private schools.
More than three decades have passed since former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson signed into law the nation’s first modern parent choice program.
Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program has inspired a national movement. Thirty-two other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico now have their own Parent Choice Programs, serving more than 600,000 students. The pandemic has fueled recent growth and made parents around the world aware of the importance of being able to choose the education that is best for their children.
As part of National School Choice Week, fans from across Wisconsin will gather at Lambeau Field Friday night to celebrate progress. I will have the honor of introducing Governor Thompson, the keynote speaker. Our meeting will be an opportunity to reflect on truly historic successes and look to the future.
The MPCP has grown considerably. In 1990, it served only 341 students in seven schools. Last year, nearly 29,000 students – 1 in 4 Milwaukee school children – used it to attend 129 private schools.
There is much more. Through other programs created in the 1990s and signed into law by Governor Thompson, students can also attend charter schools or transfer to public schools outside of Milwaukee. As a result, 46% of Milwaukee students — nearly half — are using K-12 options that didn’t exist before 1990.
Credit for the MPCP and subsequent reforms belongs to a coalition of strange bedfellows crossing racial, religious, economic and political lines. The coalition defeated fierce opposition. Thanks to generous philanthropy and invaluable legal assistance, the Milwaukee program withstood three legal challenges in the 1990s.
The 1998 victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court helped pave the way for a landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Parental Choice Program in Cleveland, Ohio.
Early opponents — teachers’ unions, public school officials, self-proclaimed “civil rights” groups — said there was no evidence that parental choice was producing results. No serious person says that anymore. Indianapolis-based EdChoice has documented more than 150 credible studies of parent choice programs across the country. The preponderance of evidence is positive, as measured by test scores, positive impact on public schools, higher graduation rates, fiscal impact, civic values, and other factors. Only eleven studies identify negative results regarding test scores, parental satisfaction, and fiscal impact.
In Milwaukee, the evidence is clear. For example, more than two-thirds of choice and charter students attend schools ranked highly on the state report card issued by the Department of Public Instruction. In comparison, only 20% of Milwaukee public school students attend highly rated schools.
UrbanMilwaukee, a progressive website, ranks the private and charter sectors well ahead of the MPS when it comes to low-income students. Researchers have documented lasting benefits. In peer-reviewed research, Patrick Wolf and Corey DeAngelis found that participation in the MPCP “is associated with an approximately 53% reduction in drug convictions, 86% in property damage convictions, and 38% in paternity suits.” “.
Three new Wisconsin Parent Choice programs have been adopted in the past decade. The number of private schools choosing to participate has tripled. Enrollment for the four programs, which now span the entire state, has grown to nearly 49,000 students. When charters and open enrollment transfers are added, 19% of students in the state use options not available before 1990.
Parents vote with their feet. As public school enrollment across the state has plummeted during the pandemic, there has been a steady growth in the choice of private schools and charter schools.
What about the results? Although three of the four Parents’ Choice programs are limited to low-income and working-class families, students in these programs have higher average scores than public school students on the ACT College Readiness Test.
The positive results come despite eligibility, tax, and regulatory hurdles that prevent a true test of an education market that treats families fairly. Income limits exclude about half of Wisconsin parents. Binding regulations mean the state’s top private schools don’t participate. Moreover, the average value of a voucher is less than two-thirds of per-student spending for public school students.
Participating private schools operate under the heavy hand of an education bureaucracy now headed by Jill Underly, who has run as the state’s superintendent of education as an outspoken opponent of parental choice programs. A stated goal of opponents has been to use a regulatory cudgel to discourage participation in private schools. Shortly after the Wisconsin Supreme Court victory in 1998, the American Federation of Teachers declared that “a regulated voucher system…would erode the autonomy and independence cherished by private and religious schools. [and] discourage most private schools from participating. John Benson, then the state’s superintendent of education, called the voucher program he was to administer “madness”.
He called for regulations to impose “a more formal governance structure for schools [and] more state financial oversight.
A spokesperson for Benson told the Boston Globe that “religious schools [will] be really sorry they got into this. The state will demand accountability, and the result will be two public school systems.
Common Sense Wisconsin, a public interest advocacy group led by former Thompson chief of staff Bill McCoshen, wants to break down financial, regulatory and eligibility barriers for parent choice programs. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch and expected GOP nominee Kevin Nicholson supported Common Sense Wisconsin’s call for school choice for all parents. Standing in the doorway of the school is Democratic Governor Tony Evers. As superintendent of public education, he told lawmakers a decade ago that expanding school choice was “morally wrong.” As governor, he recently vetoed modest improvements to the current law. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature has rejected its plan to freeze enrollment.
At first, the choice of school was hanging by a thread in Wisconsin. Now, with three decades of solid gains, the prospect of new gubernatorial leadership, and tremendous growth in the number of parents who want to control their children’s education, we see an unprecedented opportunity.
Susan Mitchell is a founding member and past chair of the Board of Directors of School Choice Wisconsin.