Academic journal article Education Next

The Origins of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Excerpts from No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform

Academic journal article Education Next

The Origins of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Excerpts from No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform

Article excerpt

Howard Fuller's memoir chronicles his journey from political activist to school superintendent and back again, revealing along the way the monumental challenge of ensuring that poor black children have access to a high-quality education. The excerpts below begin in the 1980s and detail the origins of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which today enables more than 25,000 low-income students to attend more than 100 Milwaukee private schools.

Many of us in the community were searching for radical ideas that would give poor and working class parents alternatives to public schools that were failing their children, and a proposal to support publicly-financed vouchers that allow children from low-income families to attend private schools emerged. At the time, I knew nothing about the history of vouchers and had never even heard of economist Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner who is generally given credit for first suggesting in the mid-1950s that tax dollars for education should follow the child. He argued that such competition for those tax dollars would force public schools to improve.

I'd eventually learn, though, that conservatives, like Friedman, were not the only ones trying to advance the idea of vouchers. By the early 1960s, others on the opposite end of the political spectrum also were making the argument that vouchers were a viable alternative for getting around the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of many public schools. To me, vouchers just seemed like the next step in a logical progression of the struggle. Our efforts to change the system hadn't worked, and so we had to have a way for low-income parents to opt out of it. Families with means already had the freedom to choose. If they didn't like their neighborhood schools, they had the resources to move their children elsewhere. I believed poor and working-class families should have that same opportunity.

There had been a change in the leadership of the Milwaukee Public Schools with the selection of Dr. Robert S. Peterkin as the new Superintendent. He had named as his Deputy Superintendent, Dr. Deborah McGriff, who had come with him from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there was a version of parent choice within the school system. Bob and Debbie, both African American, were open to some kind of choice program in Milwaukee, and they met with a number of community leaders, both Black and white, who had been pushing for a choice program for quite a while. The meetings were productive, and Bob and Debbie actually had agreed on some broad parameters for a voucher program to allow low-income parents to access private schools that had a proven record of educating poor children.

But somewhere in the process, the teachers' union got involved and interjected language that was unacceptable to the community.

So, community leaders again turned to State Representative Polly Williams and her assistant, Larry Harwell, who together drafted a bill creating the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Under the program, children from low-income families would receive state aid to attend non-religious, private schools.

Democrats, who controlled the legislature at the time, did not support vouchers as a party, and Polly had a difficult time even getting the measure heard during the 1989 legislative session. The chairwoman of the State Assembly's Education Committee refused to put the bill on the agenda for a public hearing, but Larry and Polly organized a campaign that included calling the chairwoman non-stop until she changed her mind. The hearing was held at the Milwaukee Public Schools auditorium, and I was involved in the organizing effort that pulled together hundreds of parents, students, and other community members, who packed the meeting room. We selected powerful speakers to represent them. Polly and others did the necessary politicking behind the scenes, but on the day of the hearing we knew we were still at least one vote short of the majority needed to move the bill out of the committee and onto the Assembly floor. …

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