MILWAUKEE -- At Urban Day School, the biggest of 12 Milwaukee private schools in the nation's first "choice" program, parents pop in at any hour to deliver their kids, do volunteer work, consult with teachers or schmooze with the principal.
"Any time parents choose, you have that powerful impetus, that they are going to make a contribution," said Allan Nuhlicek, a retired Milwaukee public school official who is now principal of another choice school, Bruce-Guadalupe, on Milwaukee's south side.
Under the choice program, private schools receive state education vouchers of $3,209 for each of the 880 low-income Milwaukee students they teach. Studies indicate choice parents are more satisfied than public school parents. Choice schools also can claim better attendance records than their public school counterparts.
Legislation based on the Milwaukee model has been introduced in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.
More recently, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson has proposed extending choice to Milwaukee's parochial schools.
Yet after five years of limited choice in Milwaukee, experts are divided on whether the program produces students who are any better educated than their public school counterparts.
In his annual evaluation of choice last month for the state Department of Public Instruction, John Witte, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, concluded that students in Milwaukee's choice program perform about the same as the city's low-income public school students on standardized tests. The implication is that there is no clear educational advantage to be had by attending choice schools.
In a recent critique of Dr. Witte's study, however, Harvard professor of government Paul Peterson said Dr. Witte failed to take into account that choice students had lower reading and math scores while in public school than did other low-income public school students, and that most came from social backgrounds with a greater percentage of single parents and welfare dependency than other low-income public school students.
Dr. Peterson argued that choice schools succeed in bringing disadvantaged students up to the average academic level of their low-income public school peers, and do it at half the per-pupil cost.
Yet another evaluation, published by the state legislature's Audit Bureau this month, concluded that no definitive statement could be made about the academic performance of choice students compared to public school students. The reason: Not enough are enrolled in the program, and of those who are, many are concentrated in the early elementary grades, limiting the number of students taking achievement tests.
But uncertainty over the educational impact of school choice does not deter proponents of choice in other states.
"I don't think it's a fair comparison to look at the results in Milwaukee and then to draw a conclusion about whether or not we should do it in Chicago," said Illinois state Sen. Daniel Cronin, a Republican and chief architect of choice legislation in Illinois.
There are other virtues to Milwaukee's choice schools. Class sizes are smaller, averaging 22 at Urban Day School. Students there wear uniforms, except on occasional days when they earn the right to dress casually. Teachers seem to know everyone by name. And most important, school officials say, parents are required to participate.
"The kids feel like it's more of a family thing. Parents are always in school. If not theirs, then it's the parent of another child they know," said Michelle Brown, who has three children attending the aging but sturdy brick school in central Milwaukee.
Parent involvement is considered so critical that last month 10 Urban Day students were suspended because their parents did not show up for a mandatory parent-teacher conference.
"Our expectations are different for parents, and we're able to follow through," said Principal Robb Rauh, who wrote his graduate thesis at Columbia University on the choice concept and turned down a higher-paying teaching job in New York to run Urban Day School.
For weary parents in Milwaukee's largely black inner city, whose children -- under a desegregation order -- for decades have been bused to the suburbs and within the city as well, choice has another significance: the right to send their children to a neighborhood school.
A citywide referendum to create new neighborhood schools failed two years ago. Now, with the proposed expansion of choice to Milwaukee's parochial schools, Annette Williams, a champion of neighborhood-controlled, black-run, black-taught schools, sees an opportunity.
"Let's extend the option to the churches who haven't had the opportunity to form schools, so the community can have schools," said Ms. Williams, the state assemblywoman who five years ago wrote the bill that created private-school choice for low-income Milwaukee children.
But Governor Thompson's proposed expansion of choice to include parochial schools for up to 5,500 Milwaukee pupils in two years -- 5 percent of the city's public school population -- and no enrollment limit beyond 1999, is already meeting opposition.
"Government can't be a little bit pregnant," said Mordecai Lee, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education. "If it starts funding religion, it can't differentiate between good guys and bad guys. Under this program, [sect leaders] David Koresh and Jim Jones would qualify for funding. A [coven] of witches would qualify."
Defenders of public education in Wisconsin argue that expansion of public education to private-school choice sacrifices standards and accountability. They also contend the effort undermines Horace Mann's "common school" vision. Mann, a 19th-century educator, called for free schools that embraced children of all backgrounds, were taught by professionals and were free of sectarian religious influence.
"The most substantial threat to the common school comes not only with poorer people isolating themselves, but with wealthier people isolating themselves as well," said Steven Dold, assistant superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction.
Others, however, say the idea of public money going to religious schools is no longer so radical a notion.
"It should never have been a radical notion, considering we use religious institutions for every other aspect of public life, such as hospitals and charities," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit clearing house on school reform issues in Washington.
Mark Bredemeier, a Kansas City lawyer working to make the case for expanding choice to parochial schools, says the constitutional issues involved have never been directly addressed.
He is optimistic about his chances, and hopes to get around the First Amendment stricture that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" by making the voucher payments directly to parents, rather than to schools.
For choice proponents, expanding the program to parochial schools would accomplish what the current program, with its 880-student enrollment, cannot: enough competitive impact to force change in the city's schools.
"Our central-city school systems are in deep trouble, and we need to look for alternatives," Harvard's Dr. Peterson said. "The experience of choice in Milwaukee suggests it's a good idea to give more schools the opportunity to participate."
But Dr. Witte, who says he supports the choice program in its current form, sees the inclusion of parochial schools as a stalking horse for a full-scale statewide private school voucher program for children of all income levels.
"Once you allow religious schools in, you are going to have enormous pressure to allow schools outside Milwaukee to get vouchers," said Dr. Witte, who is asking the state legislature for a full debate on the issue.