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Unusual Allies: Elite and Grass-Roots Origins of Parental Choice in Milwaukee

by Jim Carl - 1996

This article outlines the development of the 1990 Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, for several years the only publicly funded K?2 voucher program in the United States. The program comprised an alliance of neoliberal reformers who sought to extend competitive markets to public education and Milwaukee-based supporters of a handful of inner-city “independent community schools?enrolling black and Latino students. Five factors generated this conditional alliance: dissatisfaction among many black Milwaukeeans with the Milwaukee Public Schools; the efforts of multicultural supporters of community schools who had sought public funding for two decades; the growth of black political power in Milwaukee during an era of rightward-tilting state policies, as personified by state representative Polly Williams; the actions of Governor Tommy Thompson to craft neoliberal and neoconservative social policy; and the rise of Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation as the nation’s premier conservative grantmaker. This article suggests that, even given the serendipitous alignment of forces necessary for Milwaukee parental choice, the establishment of voucher programs in other large cities remains a distinct possibility.

This article outlines the development of the 1990 Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, for several years the only publicly funded K12 voucher program in the United States. The program comprised an alliance of neoliberal reformers who sought to extend competitive markets to public education and Milwaukee-based supporters of a handful of inner-city independent community schools enrolling black and Latino students. Five factors generated this conditional alliance: dissatisfaction among many black Milwaukeeans with the Milwaukee Public Schools; the efforts of multicultural supporters of community schools who had sought public funding for two decades; the growth of black political power in Milwaukee during an era of rightward-tilting state policies, as personified by state representative Polly Williams; the actions of Governor Tommy Thompson to craft neoliberal and neoconservative social policy; and the rise of Milwaukees Bradley Foundation as the nations premier conservative grantmaker. This article suggests that, even given the serendipitous alignment of forces necessary for Milwaukee parental choice, the establishment of voucher programs in other large cities remains a distinct possibility.

Educational policies, far from being some unalloyed product of the interests of a single dominant class are instead the mediated compromise of diverse class imperatives, interests, and ideologies.

Shapiro, Between Capitalism and Democracy

The 1990 Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is one of the most controversial, and closely watched, school reforms of the past decade. Although there have been several studies that assess MPCP student achievement levels and participation rates, very little work has been done to explain the origins of the program. Drawing mostly from newspaper accounts and interviews, this article outlines developments that explain the emergence of the first, and for several years only operating K12 school voucher program in the country that is publicly funded.1

In its original form, MPCP provided vouchers for up to 1 percent of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students in grades K12 to attend participating nonsectarian private schools operating in the city of Milwaukee. The amount of the voucher was Wisconsins per capita share of MPS funding ($2,466 in 19901991), and participating schools could not charge additional tuition. Students family income was limited to 175 percent of the federal poverty line (approximately $22,000 for a family of three). This program provided the platform for 1995 legislation that could, pending a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, extend Milwaukee vouchers to 15,000 students at private and parochial schools.2

MPCP is also a harbinger for privatization of public education in other states. For example, in 1995 Ohio earmarked $5,250,000 for a pilot voucher program that awards scholarships of up to $2,500 at participating private and parochial schools to K3 children residing in the Cleveland Public School District. Selection is determined by lottery, with students from low-income families given priority. A coalition of teachers unions and school administrators has challenged this program in court. It is interesting to note that some of the policymakers who helped generate vouchers in Milwaukee have been active in the Cleveland initiative.3

On a global level, Milwaukees voucher legislation can be interpreted as one of the most striking educational manifestations of the breakdown of the postWorld War II social-democratic accord. This liberal consensus, ascendant in most industrialized nations by 1950, included commitments to low rates of unemployment, Keynesian economic principles, and welfare state provisions. In the United States, the New Deal Order also came to embody a commitment to civil rights. In urban education, the liberal consensus was evident in federal policies of the 1960s and 1970s designed to ameliorate conditions for disadvantaged studentscompensatory programs and racial desegregation.4

The election of Ronald Reagan signaled the development of a new accord, embraced to varying degrees by both major political parties, that has been termed the conservative restoration. This new consensus moves toward ideologies of economic liberalism (neoliberalism) and authoritarianism (neoconservatism). Neoliberal policies include privatization and deregulation, whereas neoconservative policies include expansion of repressive state apparatuses (prisons, police, military) and a rhetoric of traditional morality and family values.5

The prefix neo is affixed to these ideological strands to show that advocates acknowledge that society has been altered during the postwar settlement to such an extent that turning back the clock or ignoring the realities of the large state and heightened rights consciousness would be unworkable. Hence, neoliberal positions move to roll back portions of the welfare state without abolishing it. Neoconservative positions accept, to some extent, political and economic changes such as those engendered by the civil rights movement or the large-scale participation of women in the paid labor force. Neoliberalism, as used here, is not to be considered a version of liberalism as in the political doctrine advocating a large social safety net, government generosity, and tolerance. However, many neoliberals, who argue for a reduced federal role, are more liberal than their neoconservative counterparts on social issues.

A significant aspect of neoliberal education reform has been the extension of private markets into state education systems. In neoconservative education reform, private schools are often privileged, because it is claimed that these are the schools that offer a traditional academic curriculum, religious training, and strict discipline. A prominent reform of the conservative restoration has been parental choice, the descriptor under which policies of open enrollment, vouchers, and tuition tax credits operate. Parental choice emphasizes individual students and schools competing in the educational marketplace, on the one hand, and identifies parents and leaders at individual schools as the most enlightened educational authorities, on the other. Parental choice is a leading education reform in this era of conservative restoration, and the Milwaukee program, because it circulates public dollars to private schools through parental decisions, represents the cutting edge of parental choice.

Yet, not all of the proponents of vouchers in Milwaukee can be described as agents of the conservative restoration. The process consisted, in large part, of an alliance between state-level neoliberal reformers who sought to extend competitive markets to public education, and Milwaukee-based supporters of a handful of inner-city independent community schools enrolling black and Latino students. Five factors generated this conditional alliance: dissatisfaction among many black Milwaukeeans with a school system that failed to deliver acceptable educational outcomes for disproportionately high numbers of black students; the existence of community schools whose multicultural supporters had sought public funding for two decades; the growth of black political representation in Milwaukee during an era when government policies tilted rightward, as personified by state representative Polly Williams; the efforts of Governor Tommy Thompsons administration to craft neoliberal and neoconservative social policy; and the rise of Milwaukees Bradley Foundation as the nations premier conservative grantmaker.


In the 1960s and 1970s, desegregation was the node around which many Milwaukee reformers seeking improved opportunities for black students organized. The civil rights campaign to desegregate MPS dates to at least 1963, with the years of greatest popular protestdemonstrations, sit-ins, student boycotts, freedom schools, the blocking of school buses, and other forms of civil disobediencebeing 19631966. After these years, direct action on the civil rights front shifted in part to open housing and employment opportunities, and in part to Black Power and community control of public institutions.6

In the litigation phases of school desegregation, civil rights activists filed the initial suit in federal district court in 1965; the case was argued in 1973/1974. Federal Judge John Reynolds ruled in 1976 that MPS, but not the state of Wisconsin, created and maintained an unconstitutionally segregated school system, and ordered the school authorities to formulate a plan to desegregate. School board appeals to the Supreme Court extended the final ruling to 1979, when plaintiffs and defendants signed a consent decree. This phase of litigation ended in 1980, when the federal court rejected an appeal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) arguing that the consent decree did not go far enough because it allowed 25 percent of MPS students to remain at predominantly black schools. The fifteen motions, countermotions, amendments, and appeals (mostly by the school board) made the Amos v. Board case one of the most costly desegregation suits ever.7

The second round of litigation took place in the 1980s. The Wisconsin legislature, in 1976 and in anticipation of the Amos ruling, had enacted a student transfer and transportation program, known as Chapter 220, that helped fund Milwaukees intradistrict desegregation transportation and stimulated a small degree of school desegregation between the city and its predominantly white suburbs. The Milwaukee school board, now with an integrationist majority, sued its suburban counterparts in 1984 to compel them to accept more African-American MPS students into their schools, on grounds that suburban districts declined to participate fully for racially exclusionary reasons. A federal district court arranged a consent decree for Greater Milwaukee school districts in 1987 that encouraged suburbs to accept higher numbers of African-American students.8

As implemented in Milwaukee in the late 1970s and early 1980s, desegregation policy was crafted by professional educators who sought to maintain white enrollment in MPS and did so by attempting to bypass most community input, especially from black Milwaukee. Under the new system of forced-voluntary transfers and magnet schools, the burden of desegregation fell disproportionately on black studentsschool authorities closed or converted to magnets schools with predominantly black enrollments and required a disproportionate percentage of black students to transfer to schools in white attendance areas. As to Chapter 220, financial incentives were put in place for MPS to rely heavily on transportation to desegregate Milwaukee schools, and this limited other forms of compensatory aid. By the 1990s, Chapter 220 grew to the third-largest category of state school aid in Wisconsin.9

From the perspective of many school reformers seeking to bring high-quality education to minority students, especially many African-American reformers, desegregation lost its luster. MPS authorities had closed schools in the predominantly black North Side during a time of increasing black enrollments and decreasing white enrollments. Black students were transported to schools throughout Milwaukee while higher percentages of white students could remain at their schools. Money spent on transportation could have been utilized for compensatory programs in central city schools. Chapter 220 also took academically talented students from city schools, and the receiving districts could augment their budgets by accepting small numbers of nonwhite students.

Limitations of MPS desegregation policyespecially discriminatory implementation of student transfers and tenuous links between desegregation and increased academic achievement for minority youthcaused many school reformers to reassess desegregation as a goal of black education reform. Increasingly, many reformers supported alternatives to an MPS that they perceived as unresponsive to the needs of black Milwaukeeans.10

The most important black education reform that demonstrates the shift from desegregation (and its implied support for MPS) toward alternatives to MPS (and its implied abandonment of influencing MPS from within) was the movement in 1987 and 1988 to form a new and nearly all-black school district out of several North Side MPS schools, anchored by North Division High School. North Division had been the focus of grassroots mobilization twice before. Superintendent Lee McMurrin recommended closing the school in 1976, but the school board built a new school on the same site, in response to African-American demands that the school remain open. In 1979 school authorities proposed that the new school be reconfigured as a citywide magnet school, thereby denying access to hundreds of black students. Supporters of North Division mounted a successful campaign to maintain the schools original attendance area.11

Advocates of the new district justified the proposal on the grounds that a school system governed through local, and black, authority would educate its students more effectively than the more bureaucratic, and whiter, MPS. Parental choice was a significant feature of the new district, as was parental authority at each school. According to the North Division proposal, parents who were dissatisfied with a particular school could enroll their children at different schools within the new district, within MPS, or, within a suburban district per Chapter 220. Parents and local residents would help determine school policies and select faculty through councils at each school.12

The proposal had supporters and detractors in both black and white Milwaukee. Supporters included the following African Americans: state representatives Polly Williams and Spencer Coggs, director of Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services and future MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller, and long-time educational activist Larry Harwell. White supporters included George Mitchell, the former chair of the mid-1980s statewide commission organized to study integration and academic achievement in MPS, and spouse Susan Mitchell. Each of these supporters helped to establish MPCP.

Black opposition included other lawmakers, the NAACP, a coalition of ministers, and some MPS teachers, administrators, and parents. The school board opposed the plan, as did the teachers union, most Milwaukee legislators, the mainstream media, and the mayors office. In late 1987, Governor Thompson met with Williams, Fuller, and George Mitchell, but declined to back the proposal. Williams and Spencer Coggs generated enough support in the assembly to pass the measure; it failed in the senate when Joint Finance Committee Chair and African-American Gary George, in whose district the new school system would be located, buried the bill.13

The proposal had its repercussions. In 1989, newly hired Robert Peterkin, MPSs first African-American superintendent and a reformer who helped develop controlled choice policies as superintendent of the Cambridge, Massachusetts schools, proposed redistricting plans to reduce transportation time for students and to make the districts bureaucracy more responsive to parents. The North Division proposal also boosted sentiment in Wisconsin government that Milwaukee school reform of some kind would be forthcoming. Thompson proposed his first Milwaukee voucher scheme in early 1988, around the same time the legislature considered North Division. Hence, vouchers were proposed at a time of considerable ferment for school reform in black Milwaukee.14


Since the late 1960s, a small group of nondenominational private schools has existed in Milwaukees central city. Many observers of the surviving schools considered them successful educators of minority youth. Urban Day School and Harambee Community School serve a predominantly black student body on the nearNorth Side; Bruce Guadelupe Community School, nearly insolvent by 1990, serves a predominantly Latino student body on the nearSouth Side. These three schools were to enroll the majority of MPCP students in the early 1990s.15

Historically, the three schools were forged out of the intersection of two postWorld War Two developments: the movement of Catholic schools away from the central city, and efforts of minority residents, activists, educators, and parents to keep the schools open after the Milwaukee Archdiocese withdrew. The legacies of these two movements remain at the surviving schools: A few educators belong to Catholic religious orders, the governing boards of the schools consist of local residents, and the curricula of the schools, which are nonreligious, contain multicultural elements.16

The first formerly Catholic school to become autonomous from the archdiocese was Urban Day, which emerged from St. Benedict-the-Moor, Milwaukees first black parish. The state demolished this church and its boarding and day schools in 1965 to make room for an expressway. Two years later, the Racine Dominican Sisters, along with interested parents and community leaders, reorganized the day school at another location, along nonsectarian lines. As other formerly Catholic schools broke ties with the archdiocese, Urban Day served as a model of a successful independent school for black Milwaukeeans. Polly Williams sent her children to Urban Day and served as chair of its governing board.17

From 1968 to 1970 the archdiocese stopped subsidizing several inner-city parish schools. During the ensuing negotiations among parents, community activists, clergy, and archdiocesan representatives, the dominant faction reorganized many of the schools along independent and nonsectarian lines, governed by parent boards. Indeed, many supporters were convinced that public and foundation funding would be forthcoming if religious ties were severed. By 1970, eight schools had made the transit ion from Catholic to nonsectarian. White supporters included future state representative Dismas Becker and Patrick Flood of the Archdiocese Council on Urban Life, and black supporters included Larry Harwell, who would become Williamss policy director.18

For the new schools, fund raising became the crucial issue. The Federation of Independent Community Schools pursued foundation and private support, but also sought public funding. Early on, many supporters envisioned that MPS would eventually fund the community schoolsthey would become a part of MPS but would be governed autonomously. MPS authorities and teachers unions opposed all community school proposals for vouchers or contracts. Community schools also sought federal assistance through the Model Cities program, but Mayor Henry Maiers office prevented most funds from reaching them.19

Supporters also lobbied the state legislature, where voucher-like legislation was proposed in the 1970s. For example, in the 1969 legislative session an assembly bill providing $200 grants to low-income pupils attending private, nonsectarian schools which are controlled by parents or neighborhoods made the rounds. Bills supporting the community schools were also proposed in the 1971 and 1973 sessions. In 1978, Dismas Becker introduced a private school options bill, whereby parents who believed that MPS was not providing their children with a quality education could enroll them in community schools and other private schools, with MPS and the state paying tuition. This proposal passed in 1983 but without state funds. Although MPS subsequently allowed no students to transfer per parents request, it did begin enrolling a few at-risk MPS students in community schools on a contractual basis. Williams became a supporter of Beckers initiative, as did future Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.20

As the personnel and board members at the surviving community schools changed over the years, so did strategies. School authorities no longer sought to become absorbed into MPS; rather, the preservation of independent status became a priority. The Coalition of Alternative Schools, formed in the 1970s to coordinate fund-raising activities, experienced some success in generating foundation support. In the late 1980s, through talks sponsored by Family Service of Wisconsin, community school leaders at Harambee, Urban Day, and Bruce Guadelupe and others once again considered vouchers a viable method of public support for private educational programs serving students from low-income households.21


The modest growth of black political power in the 1980s also influenced educational policymaking that led to MPCP. African Americans, who comprised 15 percent of Milwaukees population in 1970, were substantially underrepresented in city and state legislative bodies for much of the postWorld War II era. This changed somewhat by 1990. With 30 percent of Milwaukees population, black representation included five of Milwaukees nineteen state legislators, four of seventeen city council members, and three of nine school board members.22

John Norquist, elected mayor in 1988, courted the black vote to a greater extent than had Henry Maier during his twenty-eight year reign. Norquist backed school vouchers at the same time black lawmakers increasingly supported public funding for the independent community schools. In the state legislature, black Democratic and white Republican interests dovetailed with parental choice legislation. Bipartisan support for vouchers helped create a rift among the legislatures white Democrats, with conservatives supporting them and liberals who led the Democratic party in opposition.

Polly Williams authored the 1990 legislation, together with Larry Harwell and representatives of Harambee and Urban Day. Passage of parental choice turned on Williamss efforts. She served as a bridge between many black Milwaukee school reformers and Republicans active in school politics. Williams was able to mobilize support for state funds to community schools among black elected officials, the independent schools, and the black electorate. In particular, Williams and Harwell convinced Gary George in the senate and Marcia Coggs in the assembly to eventually back the bill. Milwaukees African-American press also supported Williamss voucher initiatives. Editor Mikel Holt of the black-owned Milwaukee Community Journal covered the politics of parental choice extensively and penned several editorials in support of school vouchers.23

On the other side of the aisle, Williams attracted white support by reinterpreting neoliberal justifications for vouchers onto the terrain of black self-determination. Unlike her New Right allies, who argued that the social safety net ought to be lowered or dismantled, Williams believed that blacks needed to take control of publicly funded programs and institutions that targeted their communities. As with the New North Division proposal, vouchers represented, for Williams, state recognition and support of black local institutions. Although Williams also spoke the neoliberal language of competition and markets, it seems that the community control aspect of parental choice was, for her, the most compelling justification.24

Finally, Williamss office organized black supporters of MPCP to lobby white politicians for its passage. Urban Education Committee Chair Barbara Notestein presented the final obstacle to the passage of MPCP in the assembly, by holding Williamss bill in committee to await an MPS counterproposal that was not forthcoming. At the national Black Womens Network annual meeting, held in Milwaukee, Williams organized leaders to urge Notestein to release the bill. At a community meeting held by Notestein at the MPS administration building in early 1990, Williams and Harwell outlined the bill for the audience, and most speakers, including Howard Fuller, called for passage. Soon after, Notestein released the bill, amended with a five-year sunset provision and a reduction of the voucher amount to less than full tuition. The legislature passed the proposal after Gary George attached the bill as a rider to budget adjustment legislation (the senate further reduced the size of the voucher by approximately $600). Thompson used his line-item veto authority to drop the sunset provision when he signed the legislation.25

Williams represented a strand of black Democratic leadership that recognized the limitations of alliances with white liberals. Despite 1960s civil rights legislation, access to decent employment, housing, and education has remained problematic for many African Americans. Continued reliance on white-liberal Democratic support held even less promise for Williams because at state and national levels, Republicans, rather than Democrats, were in control of executive branches, and a neoliberal Democrat was mayor. In the movement for black self-determination, according to Williams, political allies come from either party: From the African American position . . . theres not much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. . . . Whoever is sincere about working with us, our door is open.26

Growing acceptance of vouchers provided Williams with an opportunity to advance her strategy of increasing black political power through bipartisan alliances. However, Williams did not support Thompsons voucher proposals of 1988 and 1989. While Williams agreed that Thompsons parental-choice initiatives had merit, she concentrated on New North Division, and afterward, she generated proposals that would force MPS to scale back desegregation transfers and plow the savings into predominantly black schools. It was only when, at Governor Thompsons urging, Superintendent Peterkin had a voucher plan introduced in 1989 that would grant MPS administrative authority and a slice of the state revenue earmarked for low-income at-risk students in private school s that Williams responded with her own voucher plan.27

Her proposal placed administrative authority at the state level, rather than in MPS, and it removed the at-risk provision, which Williams and others perceived as a method for dumping unruly students into the community schools. Williams introduced her legislation, which passed in a form similar to Thompsons 1989 parental choice proposal, for several reasons. It would begin to open up black alternatives to MPS for dissatisfied parents. It undercut state support to a school system that stressed desegregation instead of education. And it channeled state funding to community schools that many black Milwaukeeans held in high esteem. Opponents of Williamss proposal, such as Milwaukee NAACP President Felmers Chaney, argued that it did nothing to improve conditions for the 60,000 African-American students who remained in MPS. Williamss authorship of parental choice legislation attracted powerful Republican and conservative supporters, including President George Bush, Bradley Foundation President Michael Joyce, and the editorial page writers of the Wall Street Journal.28


Tommy Thompson unseated Democrat Tony Earl in 1986, and proceeded to sponsor proposals in a Democrat-controlled legislature that redistributed wealth upward in a fashion reminiscent of the Reagan administrations trickle-down policies of the early 1980s. However, it was through his school and welfare reform initiatives that Thompson acquired a national reputation as a New Right reformer with populist appeal. On the neoliberal side, the Thompson administration underscored the belief that private markets rather than state entitlements ameliorate poverty most effectively. On the neoconservative side, the administration addressed the belief that the state must modify poor peoples behavior.29

Three of Thompsons best-known social policy initiatives, popularly referred to as Workfare, Learnfare, and Bridefare, trimmed welfare payments to families engaging in behavior that the state deemed inappropriate. For example, Learnfare reduced welfare payments to families with truant teenagers. Polly Williams was one of many legislators opposed to these initiatives. She argued, for example, that Learnfare unfairly punished mothers for their childrens truancy, multiplied problems of poverty, and pitted family members against one another.30

Parental choice was another late 1980s Thompson initiative that can be placed in neoliberal and neoconservative contexts. Private schools would now deliver a publicly funded service. Furthermore, Thompson and his supporters believed that competition with private schools would spur improvement within MPS. Finally, good behaviorparents taking the necessary steps to secure quality education in nonpublic schoolswould be codified; the deserving poor would be rewarded.

The Thompson administration opposed most school reform initiatives that emanated from the Democratic party and teachers unions (such as smaller class sizes and increased early childhood programs), and he abandoned (until recently) his 1986 campaign promise to increase the states funding share of public education to 50 percent. Instead, parental choice became the education reform that the Thompson administration embraced to the exclusion of other policies. Initially, parental choice was an archetypal partisan political issue in Wisconsin. This changed in the summer of 1989, when Democrats allied with MPS and Democrats and Republicans allied with Polly Williams sponsored competing voucher proposals.31

Parental choice became an issue with which Republicans could appeal to predominantly black constituencies that usually voted Democratic. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s Republicans often had little more to offer African-American voters than conservative rhetoric (for example, Richard Nixon embraced an interpretation of Black Power during a Milwaukee campaign swing that was to promise blacks a piece of the action), by the late 1980s vouchers represented a tangible, albeit small, benefit. Significantly, Thompson ran better in Milwaukees black wards during his 1990 reelection campaign (8 percent of the gubernatorial vote in 1986 vs. 25 percent in 1990, and over 40 percent in 1994). Although it cannot be proven here that parental choice alone altered black voting patterns in Milwaukee, vouchers and Thompsons association with Williams were probably important factors.32


Philanthropic foundations have often played crucial roles in shaping school reform in the United States. In the case of MPCP, Milwaukees Bradley Foundation helped to legitimate parental choice as a school reform strategy by bringing sizable resources to bear in support of vouchers in Wisconsin and nationally. After enactment, and in response to efforts by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and others to limit the laws effectiveness and challenge the constitutionality of MPCP, Bradley also funded the programs legal defense.33

In the mid-1980s, Bradley became the countys largest financial backer of intellectuals and organizations with neoliberal and neoconservative goals. Bradley grew from a small, regional foundation with assets of $11 million to a large, national one in 1984, when Rockwell International purchased Milwaukees Allen Bradley Company for $1.65 billion. The foundations share of the proceeds enabled Bradleys assets to grow to $410 million by the early 1990s, over four times the assets of the next-largest conservative foundationOlin of New York. Michael Joyce moved to Bradley from Olins helm in 1986. Because of his efforts to make Bradleys funding policies more ideologically coherent, his influence on other conservative foundations, and his political connections, Joyce is arguably one of the countrys most powerful neoconservatives.34

School reform has been one of Joyces Central concerns in Milwaukee and nationally. He has argued that parental choice is the only school reform worth pursuing: All the rest are palliatives. They are incremental at best.35 Bradley-funded education research in the late 1980s has tended to advocate vouchers and other forms of educational privatization, while disparaging public education (especially MPS) and discrediting other strategies of education reform, especially desegregation. Locally, much of this research has been carried out by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), a think tank established and funded by Bradley since 1987 to disseminate research to elected officials.36

WPRIs late 1980s publications included George Mitchells The Rising Cost of the Chapter 220 Program in Wisconsin and An Evaluation of State-financed School Integration in Metropolitan Milwaukee; John Chubb and Terry Moes Educational Choice: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Mediocrity in American Education and What Can Be Done About It; Gordon Blacks The Lack of Confidence in Public Education in Wisconsin: A Survey of How 3,000 Wisconsin Residents View Public Education in Wisconsin; and Richard Bringham and John Heywoods Evaluating Wisconsins Teachers: It Can Be Done. As one example of WPRI research, pollster Gordon Black found that a majority of Milwaukee residents favored a state-supported voucher program. The publication of this survey coincided with the timing of Thompsons 1989 voucher proposals; Wisconsin newspapers ran the results of the poll.37

Bradley sponsored educational research with a national reach by John Chubb and Terry Moe, who compared the organizational structures and achievement rates of public and private schools. They argued that since private schools allegedly educate more effectively due to their more efficient organization, vouchers would boost national academic achievement. Politics, Markets, and Americas Schools was very influential, receiving attention from the news media, business groups, educators, and government officials. Bradley also helped bring Chubb and Moe to a public forum on parental choice at Milwaukee Area Technical College in 1988. Other discussants included Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn and Howard Fuller.38

In other efforts, the Bradley Foundation paid for the Educational Decentralization conference convened by the Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of WisconsinMadison in the spring of 1989. This conference resulted in a two-volume compilation called Choice and Control in American Education, edited by William Clune and John Witte. In 1990 and 1992, Bradley donated a total of $200,000 to the state of Wisconsin to support work on the states education initiatives. Thompson housed these initiatives under the Department of Administration rather than under the Department of Public Instruction, headed by Democrat and voucher opponent Bert Grover. In December 1990, the state Commission of Schools for the 21st Century, which the Bradley Foundation also helped support, recommended that MPCP should be extended to three other Wisconsin sites. Finally, Bradley donated over $350,000 to the Landmark Legal Foundation in the early 1990s. Plaintiffs, who supported MPCP in the Wisconsin courts, hired this legal foundation and lead attorney Clint Bolick through Polly Williamss office. In the words of one of the framers of Milwaukee parental choice, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bradley was moving everybody.39

Compared with its large grants to conservative intellectuals, publications, think tanks, and university programs, direct Bradley support of independent community schools has been modest. During the 5 years 19881992, Bradley contributions averaged $5 to $10 thousand yearly to each of the largest participating schools. Indirectly, Bradley also supported the schools through a larger, privately funded voucher system called Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), an extension of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Education Foundation. Under this program, parochial schools were eligible for vouchers of up to $1,000. Bradleys donations to the community schools have also been small compared with donations that some other foundations have made. Bradley has emphasized shaping public policy rather than keeping independent schools solvent through its own donations.40


This article details the process whereby parental choice in Wisconsin was the product of a tentative alliance between elite and grass-roots forces, rather than the unalloyed result of conservative efforts. The legacy of independent community schools in Milwaukee and the frustration of many African-American school reformers with MPS were necessary ingredients, as was the willingness of black Democrat Polly Williams and her constituents to rework what was initially a Republican reform. From above, the Bradley Foundation also helped prepare the ground. Reformers fused, at least temporarily and in spite of disagreements on other areas of social policy, an ideology of the market with an ideology of black self-determination.

It is also important to note the absence of two groups that have often been leading players in the politics of urban school reform since the Progressive era. Business, through the Greater Milwaukee Committee, was largely silent on the voucher issue before the passage of MPCP. It was only in the early 1990s, as evidenced by efforts in the business community to back Howard Fuller as school superintendent, that business could again be seen as a visible player in public school politics.41

By and large, public school advocacy organizations, composed of middle-class reformers and researchers, did not move to oppose the Milwaukee proposals. One of the reasons for this was that, unlike Chicago, there were no active organizations of this nature with the power to move state legislation. A somewhat smaller and progressive public school advocacy organization, Rethinking Schools, was divided on whether to support or oppose vouchers in Milwaukee. Although this collective of educators and community activists has been successful in moving the school system to reconsider its curriculum, testing, and governance policies, it did not specifically oppose Milwaukee vouchers in the late 1980s. It did, however, publish an influential and widely circulated special issue in 1992 called False Choices, which countered pro-voucher arguments on the national level. It was in these vacuums (little business input, no school reform organizations directly opposed to Milwaukee vouchers) that other reform interests operated.42

Finally, this inquiry into the origins of Milwaukee vouchers necessitates a consideration of how replicable MPCP is in other cities around the country. Is parental choice Milwaukee-style an anomaly, or is it the shape of schools to come? To a certain extent, Milwaukees voucher origins are unique. Few cities can boast of a preexisting system of independent community schools, and there is only one Bradley Foundation. Certain other conditions were, perhaps, unique to Wisconsin as well. The states progressive tradition probably had something to do with a governor and a mayor being willing to experiment in social policy, even if that meant moving against one of Milwaukees most important institutionsthe public schools. To take Chicago in the late 1980s as a nearby contrast, the mayor, business leaders, public school advocacy organizations, and popular protest succeeded in shaping a school reform movement that passed legislation that bypassed the voucher impulse and stressed participatory democratic governance at the school level. Finally, educational privatization has experienced setbacks in the last two years. Most significantly, Christopher Whittles Edison Project collapsed and Education Alternatives lost its contracts to manage urban public schools. The uniqueness of Milwaukee and the slowdown in privatization efforts nationally lend support to the position that publicly funded vouchers will not sweep U.S. cities anytime soon.43

Nevertheless, the political economies of large U.S. cities are similar, and because of this, Milwaukee parental choice does have the potential to be exportable. As mentioned above, the existence of a similar program in Cleveland underscores this trend. Deindustrialization, suburbanization, and globalizationand the breakdown of the social democratic accord that has accompanied these trendshave eroded urban tax bases and isolated many working-class city residents from economic and educational opportunities that more affluent urban and suburban citizens enjoy. Hence, disillusionment with urban public schoolswhich emanates from a variety of circles inside and outside of citiesis substantial. Finally, neoliberal education reform remains popular at the national level. Although President Clinton is opposed to vouchers, his administration supports public school parental choice. Neoliberal education reformwhether it be voucher schemes, private management, or competition between schools for students and fundinghas a wide array of supporters. And the broader neoliberal educational push, to enlist public education in a national effort to train a more competitive work force for the global economy, does not necessarily counter the impulse to privatize.

At the very least, this case study demonstrates that organizing among diverse local, state, and national interests can lead to educational privatization. It seems that when rightist forces are able to articulate policies that resonate with racial minorities, rather than insisting that we live in a colorblind society, the potential is always there for alliances that may seem, at first blush, unusual. In these political and economic conditions, and barring a national commitment to rebuild our urban infrastructures, arguments for vouchers and other forms of privatized schooling will remain compelling. This does not imply, however, that urban vouchers are a given, since organizational work by other race and class fractions and interests has pushed urban school reform in other directions. Those of us convinced that (reformed) public schools still offer the best form of education for the construction of a democratic society are in for a long haul.

A version of this article was presented at the History of Education Society Annual meeting, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 1922, 1995. I would like to thank Robert Lowe and John Rury for their helpful comments and suggestions on the earlier presentation.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 2, 1996, p. 266-285
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9616, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:54:50 PM

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  • Jim Carl
    John Carroll University

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