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How School Choice Helps Public Schools
by John Gardner

In April, 1995 I was elected At-large, or City-wide, member of the Milwaukee School Board on a platform for school choice and public education. As a left-wing organizer with thirty years' experience in labor unions, workers' cooperatives and poor communities, I knew working-class and poor people do not want school choice or public education. They want both.

Three years later evidence from Milwaukee, home of the nation's most ambitious program to let parents enroll students where they want, demonstrates school choice has improved Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Academic and political debate has concentrated on comparing small groups of students in Milwaukee and Cleveland with comparable students in government schools. Milwaukee's evidence raises the larger issue of how competition affects government schools that will, regardless of choice's success or failures, continue to educate most students everywhere.

In Milwaukee, the results are promising.

School Choice and MPS

MPS, America's twelfth-largest urban district, has succeeded more than most. Wisconsin's progressive state equalization formula funds more than two-thirds of MPS's over $8,000 per-pupil costs. Buildings are structurally sound, well-maintained and clean. Honest, competent fiscal accounting endures. Like all major American school districts, however, MPS fails to educate most students to minimal performance standards, measured by grades, tests, graduations, or post-graduate accomplishment. Poor and minority students that now comprise almost eighty percent of MPS's student body fare especially poorly.

Frustrated with academic performance, and angry with MPS's unresponsiveness since the late 1960's, Milwaukee minority communities developed independent schools, secured integration agreements, and advocated for specialized MPS schools. By late 1980's continuous decline generated more radical proposals, including legislation for a separate central-city minority district.

In 1989 two Milwaukee African-American Democrats, Representative Annette "Polly" Williams and State Senator Gary George, representing Wisconsin's poorest and most concentratedly minority legislative districts, forged an unexpected coalition with conservative Wisconsin Republicans to pass the nation's first program that let poor Milwaukee parents enroll up to one thousand, five hundred children in independent secular schools directly funded by the state.

By 1993 the program was oversubscribed. To address the overload and preserve independent and religious schools threatened with closing, educational, business, foundations, and religious leaders founded PAVE (Parents Advancing Values in Education) to provide partial scholarships for families the state-financed choice program did not help.

By 1995, over one thousand students waited for school choice funding, and three thousand more were using PAVE scholarships. Milwaukee support for school choice in Milwaukee had grown into a broad and unlikely coalition including parents; Milwaukee's liberal Democratic Mayor John Norquist; Democratic and Republican state legislators representing the City; leaders from Milwaukee's business, religious, and minority communities; and choice-funded schools ranging from counter-cultural alternatives to straight-laced parochials.

The coalition sponsored and supported 1995 legislation to expand the state choice program to fifteen thousand students, higher income eligibility, and religious schools. Republican Governor Tommy Thompson included the legislation in his 1995-97 biennial budget bill. By March, leaders of both parties in both Wisconsin House and Senate publicly announced the measure would succeed. In June, the bill passed the legislature, and was signed into law in mid July.

MPS, having already lost fifteen hundred students, stood to lose fifteen thousand. When the program opened enrollment in late August, over five thousand students immediately applied. The Milwaukee school choice era that began in 1989 was about to hit full stride.

MPS' Response

Hanging over the MPS board at my first meeting on April 25, 1995 was a brilliant black and yellow banner proclaiming "MPS -- Milwaukee's First Schools of Choice".

Slogans abound in MPS, and usually mean nothing. This slogan, however, began shaping reality immediately. "First Choice Within MPS" became the board's first strategic planning and budget priority for the 1995-96 school year, and has remained so since.

Responsive, assertive parent recruitment is not new to MPS, which successfully created magnet schools in the 1970's, offering language immersion, arts, Montessori, and International Baccalaureate programs to induce voluntary racial integration. Recruiting poor minority parents -- the parents MPS was threatened with losing -- was, however, a precedent.

In late spring and summer 1995, MPS announced the opening of seven new "Innovative" schools, designed largely to offer low-income students the same quality education previously reserved for specialty magnets. With unprecedented efficiency, despite severe impediments, all seven schools opened in late August.

With millions of state dollars staked on September enrollments MPS competed, and performed well. When Wisconsin courts enjoined the five thousand students from attending the expanded choice program, MPS boldly guaranteed seats for every one of them. PAVE raised funds for partial tuition for every applicant. MPS's tuition-free offerings, new Innovative schools, and aggressive outreach MPS resulted in one thousand, three hundred new students in the September enrollment count.

Since the mid-1960's MPS has focused primarily on racial integration, capital expansion plans, curriculum reforms, managerial reorganizations, and specialized programs. In a few months, MPS refocused on something the nation had never before seen: a comprehensive strategy and plan to recruit, serve, and retain poor, minority City students.

Accomplishing that, however, required reorganizing school selection, accountability, standards, and autonomy, all of which happened in remarkably short time.

School Selection

In July, 1995 the MPS Board contracted for an independent study to redesign student assignment. In October, consultants proposed a sweeping process reorganization. "Student assignment" would be replaced by "school selection". Annual selection mailings would be simplified and made more attractive. All high schools would become "city-wide", letting all Milwaukee eighth graders apply for any MPS high school. Nearby families within defined "walk zones" were given priority, encouraging neighboring applicants. The board adopted all recommendations.

Two popular high schools with rigorous college-bound programs accounted for almost one fifth of all MPS waiting lists. The board authorized minimum entrance requirements for over-subscribed schools. Only students with more than ninety percent attendance in the first semester of the eighth grade qualified for application.

When the attendance requirement resulted in net increases for African-American, exceptional education, and other disadvantaged students in 1996-97 school year, the board authorized all MPS high schools to define admission standards, designed to require demonstrated commitment to the schools' programs and discipline. Three oversubscribed schools set rigorous qualifying admissions procedures, and all have committed to do so by 2000.

Expanded Seats

For more than two decades, the greatest possibility for enrollment expansion within MPS has been obvious. Between five and seven thousand children each year wait for four- and five-year old kindergarten space. MPS early childhood schools of all kinds have long waiting lists. So do the few MPS schools that provide before- and after-school child care.

Single-parent families, and families in which both parents work, require all-day childcare. Parents universally prefer childcare with education has grown around MPS. Non-profit and for-profit childcare agencies and childcare within independent and religious schools has exploded, while MPS remained generally stagnant.

In the 1996-97 budget, MPS expanded early childhood seats by more than one thousand per year in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years. All-day childcare expanded from three to twenty-seven schools.

For older students, the board expanded oversubscribed independent partnership schools -- small schools serving students whom do not fare well in MPS. Seats increased by more than one thousand, for elementary, middle and high school students. Three of the new Innovative high schools were small, specialized programs.

School Autonomy

In the 1996-97 and 1997-98 budgets, MPS decentralized more than thirty percent of the system's operating funds, so that schools now budget, report, and control over seventy-four percent of their own budgets.

Schools have been granted exemptions and autonomy in matters long requested and denied. Schools now define their own grade levels, feeder patterns to other schools, governance councils, and curriculum. Exemptions from labor contracts authorize eight schools to hire teachers and teaching assistants without regard to MPS seniority.

In 1996 MPS established procedures to solicit, review, and authorize charter schools, with five-year contracts and radical autonomy. In April, 1996 the board authorized the first MPS charter school, an independent parent-owned community school whose transition from independence to MPS charter was financed with four years school choice and PAVE funding.

Program Flexibility

Neither schools nor the system could accommodate parents' needs or clearly expressed wishes without making some radical changes. In twelve months from April 1995 though March 1996, MPS authorized the following precedents.

Schools are no longer equated with buildings. A number of schools now have more than one campus, and several more have more than one school within them. Classrooms within community centers, religious congregations, independent and religious schools, and commercial storefronts are now normal places for schools to operate, as they have been in other cities for generations. "Lead teachers" report to principals at a main campus or another school, freeing money once required for administration for direct classroom instruction.

Schools adjust calendars and schedules, operating after-hours, block schedules, or year-round.

Schools engage parents and surrounding communities in partnerships with child care centers, recreation programs, religious congregations, and social service agencies to provide comprehensive programs for entire communities. Schools in geographic areas and schools with common programs routinely collaborate to develop collateral joint programs without waiting for board permission or command.

Expanded Popular Programs

Many popular MPS schools and programs are over-subscribed not because of demographic needs, or to accommodate over-worked parents, but because they have long histories and wide reputations for excellence. Language immersion, Montessori, arts, and college-bound courses accounted for almost eighty percent of the students on wait lists in 1995.

In 1996-97 and 1997-98, MPS added eight such programs and schools. A language specialty high school now accommodates graduates of MPS elementary and middle language immersion schools, and a new school sponsors American Sign Language programs for hearing impaired and hearing students. MPS added a third MPS Montessori school, six additional grades in the established two schools and a Montessori charter. Capital improvements and annex space expanded the most over-subscribed middle school of the arts and most over-subscribed high school, and a partnership middle school arts program was added. Two additional college prep programs were added, and two high schools will submit applications in 1997 for MPS's second and third International Baccalaureate high schools.

The fundamental breakthrough accomplished in all these expansions was that "specialty" schools no longer means "magnet". If programs such as language immersion, Montessori, or arts are good enough to attract middle-class white students for purposes of integration, they are now considered good enough for working-class and low-income minority students as well.

Standards and Accountability

MPS's most ambitious change concerned quality assurance throughout the entire district.

In the spring of 1995, over eighty percent of MPS juniors and seniors failed a new math proficiency examination. Despite pressure to postpone or eliminate the tests, the MPS board held tough and maintained its insistence that seniors would have to pass the test to graduate in 1996.

In January, 1996, the board passed the nation's most stringent graduation requirements. The MPS graduating class of 2004 will have to pass proficiency examinations in mathematics and oral and written communication; write and defend a research thesis; take specified numbers and levels of science and social science courses; and complete at least one community service project.

In November, 1995 and January, 1996 the MPS board unexpectedly voted to close and reconstitute ten failing schools. Elected parents and staff were required to develop and submit plans for measurable improvement.

Elected representatives of all levels of MPS schools have reviewed, refined, and amended district-wide and school-specific accountability measures, which form the basis for each school's annual development of an Education Plan to improve attendance, student achievement, student and parent satisfaction, and graduation, with measurable objectives and reported results.

In the most intransigent of barriers to improvement, the evaluation and dismissal of incompetent teachers, the MPS Board and MTEA reached agreement on two far-reaching reforms. New MPS teachers must now pass two years' probation before they can only be terminated "for cause," which means with documented and persuasive proof. The board and MTEA jointly appoint and administer a teacher evaluation unit, empowered with authority to terminate teachers who do not demonstrably improve.


School choice was neither the exclusive nor sufficient impetus for the managerial revolution that took place in the twelve months of April, 1995 through March, 1996. Every reform mentioned emerged from a long history of internal effort and external demand. Developing a third Montessori school, for instance, had been a stalled initiative for more than twenty years.

School choice partisans were not responsible for the reforms. Most MPS reformers, like most MPS board members and other internal constituencies, oppose school choice vigorously, for reasons that are both legitimately self-interested and genuinely based on deeply held values.

Reforms, however, including those with clear merit and without vigorous opposition died because one of many parties -- the board, Superintendent, central administration, teachers' or administrators' union, principals, or teachers -- could effectively veto it. Lining up all internal vested interests for the same thing, at the same time, generally proved more than anyone could do. No one, for instance, ever opposed the idea of annex classrooms for overcrowded elementary schools. It was simply never done. Constraints of time or money, fear of possible legal impediments, anxiety about prospective opposition, or simply lack of sustained, effective leadership effectively derailed any idea, no matter how clear, appealing, and good.

School choice has provided Milwaukee parents in the late 1990's with the same external challenge and threat that integration mandates offered decades ago. As integration made public education begin addressing minority students, parents, and communities, school choice is making MPS begin treating poor children of all races as valued customers, in large part because, for the first time, they are.

Well-intended, often passionately admirable, educational reformers have promoted managerial, pedagogical, transportation, and governance schemes for decades -- sometimes with good results. But no one has yet proposed or implemented a reform to improve student achievement throughout a low-income, minority district of government schools.

In Milwaukee, that finally appears possible.

In the 1996-97 school selection process, the number of students entering MPS's first-choice process increased by almost one thousand, five hundred. Despite that increase, MPS improved its percentage of students who received first choice from 79.2% to 79.7% -- the first time since the lottery process was established twenty years ago that the system has demonstrated such response. Over five thousand new seats have been added in early childhood, partnership, Innovative Schools, and the expansion of over-subscribed programs.

Only twelve percent of MPS high school seniors passed the new math proficiency exam when it was first administered in 1995. Over ninety percent passed in both 1996 and 1997.

Elementary school students have improved performance on standardized writing proficiency tests by more than thirty percent. On one national standardized test last year, sixty-five percent of fifth graders scored above the national average -- the only major urban district in the nation to do so.

Middle schools have collaborated to design rigorous graduation examinations and proficiency demonstrations, so that high schools will no longer be saddled with the entire responsibility for meeting rigorous graduation standards.

Of the six reconstituted schools closed in January, 1996, five have demonstrated significant improvement in attendance, student safety, and academic achievement. More MPS teachers were terminated for incompetence in 1996-97 than in the preceding twenty years.

Less easy to measure, but in the long run more important, schools are examining qualitative and quantitative data to formulate clear, concise, and measurable annual education plans. For the first time, no MPS school is using last year's routine, or this year's difficulties, as excuse or reason not to improve.

The Threat Ends

In March 1996, Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge Paul Higgenbotham ruled that school choice was unconstitutional.

MPS, from the board majority that opposed choice to administrators, principals and teachers who had been engaged in a year's competitive drill, breathed grateful sighs of fatigued relief. School choice, while the issues made their way through the Wisconsin Supreme Court, no longer offered immediate threat to MPS enrollment, funds, or staff positions.

Before that date, the MPS administration had negotiated seven Memoranda of Understanding with the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), granting exemption from the district's strict seniority teacher assignment system. On April 26, 1996 Grand Avenue Alternative High School, which had been expected to secure a similar exemption, was denied by the MTEA. There has been no such exemption granted since, and no new Innovative School. The Innovative School process, heralded by MPS and the MTEA alike as the system's answer to school choice, stopped.

The MTEA was not the only internal MPS constituency to slow down or stop reform. The central administration, so anxious to expand central city elementary school seats for 1995-96, refused to let HiMount Community School expand its annex classroom at St. Catherine's School to the first grade, despite an overload of more than sixty students from expanded kindergarten schools.

The MPS Board, so entrepreneurial and courageous during the school choice threat, suddenly found reasons for caution. The Board could not bring itself to move one of the successful innovative schools space in a failing high school, or insist on school-based hiring by teachers and parents during continuing labor negotiations.

School closings, charters, decentralization, and innovative schools are all on what appears to be permanent hold.

To some extent these reverses reflect judicial procedures and the inevitable consolidation and retrenchment of any organization after a sudden burst of innovation and effort. And some efforts, that generate no internal opposition, have gone forward. But the burst of entrepreneurial effort, the sudden coalescence of internal collaboration, the political will to respond, and the managerial impetus to implement, have effectively dissolved. Without the general environment and specific threat of losing students and losing money, reform has stalled.

More Choice, More Public Education

Public education needs more parental choice, not less. The pressure for school choice creates more than a safety valve. It is the energy to transform bureaucratic systems of juvenile warehousing into public education.

Poor parents in large urban districts, like all others, know good schools are safe, nurturing, challenging and effective. Bad schools aren't. The most important difference in public education isn't between public or private, religious or secular, independent or governmental. It's between good and bad. What helps poor families is what improves public education: clear, accountable choices and consequences for school districts that everyone understands -- money following students to where they are best served.

As the MPS board unanimously wrote in a September 8, 1997 letter supporting PAVE, "waiting lists for our good schools continue to grow. Low-income and minority students remain especially disadvantaged by a lack of excellent choices within MPS."

"Parents have the right and responsibility to determine the course of their children's education. As members of the Board of MPS, our task is to support them in carrying out that responsibility. Regardless of our individual views about school choice, we believe PAVE's effort to afford disadvantaged families their first choice for quality education is a critical initiative -- not only to help thousands of poor families but to support the reforms MPS is trying to make."

"MPS can provide quality education for all our children. We have confidence that we will do so. But until we make that happen, we ask that you contribute to PAVE's scholarship fund, both for the sake of the thousands of children immediately at risk and for the sake of public education reforms in Milwaukee."

In December, three members of the MPS board of directors signed a friend of the court brief asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to support expanded school choice, not only for the benefit of poor Milwaukee families long denied access to decent education, but because of school choice's already demonstrated positive benefits to MPS.

Milwaukee's early results show that more choice means more, not less, public education -- not only for Milwaukee's poorest families, but for Milwaukee Public Schools.

How School Choice Helps Public Education
by John Gardner
MPS At-Large Director 1997
3135 W. Juneau Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53208
(414) 390-1389 FAX: (414) 344-4319
January 12, 1998

Hypertext by Terrence Berres
Revised April 24, 2005.