Milwaukee's Kids: Free At Last!

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Supporters of school choice won only a small skirmish last week, but 5,800 youngsters got back their right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of tax-funded vouchers for elementary and secondary education in both secular and religious schools. That doesn't mean that the high court necessarily agrees (or disagrees) with the Wisconsin court; but it does mean that a voucher program in Milwaukee can continue.

So the battle over choice is not ended. Now both advocates and opponents of tax-funded school vouchers wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to review a voucher case, possibly one of those working their way through state courts in Ohio, Vermont, Maine, and Arizona, and make a definitive ruling.

But the effort of the educational bureaucracy to take good education away from those 5,800 kids in Milwaukee who have left public schools and are using the vouchers is ended. The kids won. They have escaped. They may or may not do better in private schools, but they and their parents had a choice, they took it, and they are no longer forced to tolerate bad public schools.

That, of course, is not the way the teachers' union sees it. "Every day the voucher plan does more damage to the Milwaukee Public Schools," said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. But nowhere near the damage the Milwaukee public school system does to the lifetime opportunities of the children trapped within it.

Bear in mind that Messrs. Craney and Chase are talking about a school system where fewer than half of the high school freshmen graduate. It's a system where administrators have limited control over teacher assignments because of seniority provisions in the union contract, where only 53 percent of the system budget goes to actual instruction. Why hasn't the public school system been doing a better job with the $8,051 per student it had last year?

According to polls, one of the main reasons thousands of middle-class families abandoned Milwaukee during the 1980s was the poor quality of the schools. Today about 40 percent of the school district's 103,000 students are from poor families -- families not able to flee to private schools or better public school districts.

That's why the Wisconsin Legislature acted in 1990, approving a limited tax-funded school voucher program restricted to use in private secular schools. (The union unsuccessfully fought that move in court, too.) The latest case grew out of a legislative expansion of the program in 1995 that allowed vouchers to be used in both secular and religious private schools.

Constitutionality is not a particular concern of the teachers' union and its allies, but maintaining the public school monopoly on elementary and secondary education is. The nation's public schools now control 92 cents of every dollar spent on elementary and secondary education. Understandably, they don't want to have to compete.

But just as Japanese competition forced American car manufacturers to improve or go out of business, just as long-distance telephone service is better and less expensive today because of competition, public schools will react to competitive pressures by improving, when those pressures exist.

For example, in Albany, N.Y., philanthropist Virginia Gilder offered a private school scholarship to any student at Giffen Elementary School, academically Albany's worst. The Albany Board of Education called it "a political stunt" -- but installed a new principal, two additional assistant principals, transferred nine teachers (not fired, just inflicted on other schools), and pledged to spend an additional $125,000 for books, equipment and teacher training at Giffen.

Another privately funded program offered a private school scholarship to any of the 14,000 students in San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District. The school district has responded by, among other things, opening a fine-arts academy to help retain students and letting parents from other districts know it will accept transfers.

John Gardner, a member of the Milwaukee school board when the legislature approved the expanded voucher program in 1995, told the Wall Street Journal, "It jolted us into doing some things we hadn't been doing before." Then when the expansion was blocked pending court appeals, Gardner said, "we stopped responding. It just proves we need more competition."

Parents just want their children to have an education that will allow them to realize all of life's opportunities. If one school or school system can't handle that job, they need the option of going to another. Education is too important to be left to a monopoly to provide.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.