Milwaukee experiment gives first-hand look at school voucher program

MILWAUKEE — MILWAUKEE -- Urban Day School principal Robb Rauh speaks with passion about the rewards of letting inner-city parents use public funds to send their children to private schools such as his.

His Exhibit A is Regis Chesir, an eighth-grader who entered Urban Day as a "totally irresponsible" kid who never finished his homework. Now he has a solid B average and is the captain of the basketball team.


As the program enters its fourth year, however, Mr. Rauh concedes there is no proof that it has improved academic performance overall, and standardized test results at Urban Day are hardly glowing. "I haven't compared scores," he said, "because I'm afraid of what I might find out."

Such conflicting currents have helped to make "private school choice" -- using public funds to enroll students in private schools -- one of the most divisive education issues in recent years, especially since many parents feel public schools are too broken to fix.


Next month, Californians will vote on the broadest private school choice measure ever put on a ballot. The proposal would give parents a public voucher for about $2,600 to enroll a student in any school in the state: public or private, religious or secular.

Advocates say the proposal would give public schools ..TC wake-up call: Get better or lose enrollment -- and money. Critics warn that it would undermine public schools by siphoning off their most motivated students and depriving them of money and staff.

Milwaukee may be the best place to see how such a program might work, because it is the only city in the nation that offers vouchers for private schools. (Other public districts pay private schools to educate children who are disabled or have other special needs.)

In particular, the plan may offer insight into how school choice would affect low-income families, the people most often trapped when public schools deteriorate.

That's because only low-income families may join the Milwaukee program. Students receive $2,970 vouchers from the state -- the citywide average amount of state aid per pupil. These are given to the private school of their choice. The private schools may not charge additional tuition.

So far, the Milwaukee program scores well in parent satisfaction but gets an incomplete on performance.

At one level, experts suggest, Milwaukee's experience shows that California should not expect its proposed voucher program to suddenly improve the usual measure of scholastic achievement -- namely, standardized test scores.

John Witte, a University of Wisconsin professor appointed by the state to evaluate the program, found that reading scores of pupils who left for private schools actually fell short of scores of similar students who remained in the public schools.


"There's no indication that the private schools do better than public schools do," Dr. Witte said.

But Milwaukee parents who have used the program praise the private schools for providing safe environments for children to learn, more individualized attention from teachers and tighter discipline.

"The parents are very happy," said Polly Williams, the Democratic state legislator who spearheaded enactment of Milwaukee's program. "There is more parental involvement, and the children want to go to school."

Most of the participating schools already catered to low-income, inner-city families. Only existing private schools may participate -- this provision has avoided the formation of new schools with extremist agendas -- and no private school may let students paying with vouchers make up more than 49 percent of enrollment. Thirteen private schools are in the plan, and they may not use any testing or other application process to decide which students they will accept.

At several of the schools, vouchers have been a boon because $2,970 exceeds annual tuition. The Bruce Guadalupe School, for example, was able to add a building with its extra money.

Urban Day, which enrolls 167 voucher pupils, has doubled its student body and opened a second campus in a vacant Catholic school building.


"I think it's wonderful what has happened to Urban Day School," said Mr. Rauh, the principal. "We're able to offer more to kids than we did four years ago because there's more money."

Every parent is expected to be involved in the school. Urban Day's motto this year is: "It takes a whole village to raise a child." Discipline is tough, but the atmosphere is warm.

Mr. Rauh took a 50 percent pay cut from his California teaching job to come to Urban Day as a teacher in 1990, the year the program was introduced. Having written a master's degree thesis on choice at Columbia University, he wanted to see it in practice.

In classroom after classroom in the impeccably clean, colorfully decorated school, students are well behaved and engaged in their work. The test results do not reflect it yet, but Mr. Rauh believes they soon will show the school is having a positive impact on students' academic abilities.

"The people who live in the immediate neighborhood did not have a lot of choice before," he said.

The Milwaukee experience does not offer much guidance on the competing claims about choice's impact on public schools. Not enough pupils participate here: There is a citywide ceiling of 1 percent of public-school enrollment, or about 950 students. The program "does not help or hurt Milwaukee public schools," said Dr. Witte, the state-appointed evaluator of the voucher program. "It has a very negligible impact."


But defenders of public schools find fault with what is going on in Milwaukee.

"A key problem with the Milwaukee program -- and it's a major problem with the California program -- is that they took out any quality control from public authorities," said Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Clinton administration supports letting students attend any public school they want, but opposes private school choice.

But Regis Chesir, the eighth-grader at Urban Day whose turnaround inspired his principal, says he doesn't need anyone to tell him whether choice is a good idea. For Regis, it all comes down to one simple fact: He did not like public school, but now he can't wait to get to school in the morning.

"The students here encourage each other to get good grades," Regis said. "And the teachers give you all the help you need."