Growing frustration with public schools has helped forge an unlikely alliance between blacks and conservative whites that may make Wisconsin the first state in the nation to use public funds to pay directly for private school educations.
The school plan--sort of a modified voucher system passed by the Legislature in March--is scheduled to go into effect with the start of school in the fall. It is being strenuously fought by state school officials, who say it could endanger the future of public education. A lawsuit filed by the teachers' and the principals' unions and the Milwaukee chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People seeks to have the plan declared unconstitutional.
But supporters of the so-called Parental Choice Law, including the state's Republican governor and an outspoken black legislator, say the plan will "empower" poor and minority families, giving them the same option that middle-class people have long had to forsake public schools that do not adequately educate their children.
The law involves only Milwaukee students whose family income does not exceed 1.75 times the federal poverty level. For these children, the state will pay private, non-sectarian schools up to $2,500 per pupil, which equals the amount the state now contributes per pupil to the Milwaukee school system. That amount will then be subtracted from the amount of aid the public school system receives.
Participation will be limited to 1% of the school population, or 930 students, to be selected randomly from those who meet the financial criteria. The 10 private schools that have chosen to participate this year have room for only about 500 students, however.
The students had until June 30 to apply to the participating private school of their choice. The schools, which include institutions with predominately black, Latino or white enrollments, now will decide whether to accept the students, using their own selection criteria.
"We need good schools," said state Rep. Annette (Polly) Williams, the black Milwaukee legislator who sponsored the school-choice legislation and who has since spoken in states where similar plans are being contemplated.
In response to complaints that the plan will damage the public schools by siphoning away funds and students, Williams said: "If the (public) schools can't do any better than they're doing now, then we don't need them."
For some civil rights and education officials, the Wisconsin plan is deeply troubling.
"This is a root change in America," said Herbert J. Grover, the Wisconsin school superintendent required to implement the plan to which he is strongly opposed.
If the choice plan is allowed to go into effect, and if it is expanded and copied in other states, then American society will become increasingly Balkanized, with members of the same ethnic, racial and economic groups attending schools with each other and coming into less contact with people different from themselves, he said.
Felmers O. Chaney, president of the Milwaukee NAACP, said he expects the plan to be quickly expanded. "I'm willing to wager that if it goes through and we can't stop it . . . in another year they will expand it to another 1,000 students and they'll keep expanding it," he said.
He is concerned that low-income whites may capitalize on the plan to escape attending school with blacks, thereby dooming a school desegregation plan already hurt by the scarcity of white students. Since 1969, the district, which has 93,000 students, has gone from 71% white to about 30% today. The district already has given up on desegregating some schools because there are not enough white students.
But Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and Williams, in a legal brief filed with the court last week, said the plan is designed to help poor and minority children who have had "some of the greatest unmet needs, the fewest resources . . . and whose families, sadly, have virtually no choice but to accept the judgment of public school authorities concerning what is 'best' for their children and their communities."
Thompson originally supported a more sweeping statewide proposal that mirrored the controversial school voucher plan that came to national prominence as a key school reform proposal of the Ronald Reagan Administration.
Chaney is distrustful of whites like Thompson who support the choice plan, which he compared to the old "Freedom of Choice" plans used in the South in the 1960s. Under those plans, school districts sought to forestall busing by declaring that students could attend any school in the district, regardless of race. Because of housing patterns, however, the changes had little effect on school desegregation.
Chaney said he was "a little shocked" at the formation of a coalition of black legislators and white conservatives.
But Williams, who in 1986 tried unsuccessfully to carve out an all-black school district in Milwaukee, is unfazed by criticism that she is being used by conservative whites.
"I'm not an integrationist," she said in an interview. "I don't chase after white people."
As she envisions it, black parents will be able to use the choice plan to enroll their children, at taxpayer expense, in predominately black private schools, where she believes their educational needs will be better met.
"The fact that the conservatives all support this, it doesn't bother me one bit," she said. "I think it's time that black people begin to look out for ourselves. It doesn't matter if conservative racists and bigots have the same idea. . . ."
Williams, who said she took her own children out of public school more than 20 years ago, maintained that public school systems do not address "the cultural needs and values" of black children.
That the public schools in Milwaukee are in severe need of reform is without dispute. "Eighty-six percent of the black children in Milwaukee are born to unwed mothers," said Grover, the state school superintendent. "It has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any major city in America."
These social problems, combined with drugs, a declining middle-class school population and other woes, have turned the school system in the city into "absolute educational chaos," he said. It is frustration over the school's failure to cope with these problems that is causing poor blacks to want to flee the system, just as middle-class whites have done, he said.
Chaney--who can be just as virulent as Williams in denouncing the public schools--blames much of the frustration in the black community on white teachers who do not understand poor blacks and who write them off as unteachable. He agrees that radical change is needed; he just thinks Williams' way isn't the answer, mainly because it rejects public schools rather than trying to change them.
Grover asked the NAACP and the unions for the teachers and the principals to sue the state to stop the choice plan.
Grover in turn is being sued by several private schools who contend that he has tried to destroy the choice program by forcing the private schools to fill out unnecessary forms and to meet unfair requirements.
Minnesota, Iowa and Arkansas are among states that have implemented choice plans that allowstatewide open public school enrollment. In addition, the Milwaukee public school district previously has contracted with private institutions to operate alternative education programs. This is the first time, however, that any state has passed a law granting students a statutory right to enroll in private school at state expense.
Because of her role in getting the law passed, Williams has been embraced by the Bush Administration and has been invited to speak before groups that want to adopt similar laws in their states.
For a woman from an all-black, low-income neighborhood who describes herself as a "Jessecrat" and who was state chairwoman of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, this is an unusual position to be in.
She speaks mostly before politically conservative white groups, she said. Her advice: Forge coalitions with disenchanted blacks if you want voucher plans to pass.
She admits her ideas are radical. She is one of the few elected officials in Milwaukee who is a uniform-wearing member of the "black militia" organized by Alderman Michael McGee, who has threatened violence in five years if the city's power structure doesn't address the needs of poor people. Yet very few mainstream black leaders have spoken out against her.
"We went to the parents first of the children who were suffering (in public schools), and we organized the parents," she said. "The parents got the politicians in line. . . . It's a movement from the bottom up," she said.
Some people see her as a black segregationist, which she doesn't deny. But she contends that white-controlled institutions do not care about blacks. Their interest is in maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the "poverty industry," she said. She includes the Milwaukee schools in her definition of a white institution, even though it has had a black superintendent for the last two years.