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This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Tromain Collier was looking for work last year when he heard about an opening at Ceria M. Travis Academy, a private K–12 school in Milwaukee where student tuition was funded by taxpayers. He was hired and started at the beginning of October. Collier, 33, had an online bachelor’s degree in business and experience as a security guard and basketball coach. He figured teaching couldn’t be that much harder.
He was assigned to teach a split class of third- and fourth-graders. The school, he says, offered him no curriculum and no record of what the previous teachers had taught. He started punching search terms into the computer such as “third grade reading” and “Common Core”—academic standards he’d heard of on the news. The classroom bookshelf held a total of five science books, which Collier recognized from his own elementary school days. They still listed Pluto as a planet, though it was demoted more than a decade ago.
Travis Academy enrolled just over 300 children in kindergarten through 12th grade last year in the deeply impoverished northwest side of Milwaukee, where most African Americans live. Just one student scored at least “proficient” in language arts on the latest state exams, and none were proficient in math, science, or social studies. That the school has operated for two decades belies a philosophy that’s underpinned private-school choice in Milwaukee for 26 years: Introducing competition to the government monopoly on public schools will lead to higher academic performance.
Travis Academy is among a minority of Milwaukee voucher schools that score this low, but it’s not an anomaly. Half a mile away at Holy Redeemer Christian Academy—another fixture in the blighted neighborhood, where it’s dangerous to walk alone even in broad daylight—just 4 out of 206 pupils tested were proficient in English on the latest state tests. None were proficient in math.
Together, Travis Academy and Holy Redeemer have received close to $100 million in taxpayer funding over the years. The sum is less than what taxpayers would have paid for those pupils in public schools, because each tuition voucher costs less than the total expense per pupil in Milwaukee Public Schools. But vouchers weren’t supposed to provide just a cheaper education. They were supposed to provide a better one.
MILWAUKEE OFFERS AMERICA'S longest-lived experiment with urban-school vouchers, but their mixed legacy is not a story you’ll frequently hear from lawmakers and advocates currently championing the spread of private school–choice programs across the country. Pushed predominantly by Republicans, Wall Street Democrats, and well-heeled conservative philanthropies, programs that send public money directly or indirectly to private schools have proliferated in both scale and variety in recent years, and they stand to get even more attention under President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to make school choice an educational priority.
Trump’s vision of making $20 billion of federal money available for children in low-performing public schools to attend charter and private schools could get a huge push in spirit or reality if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as education secretary. (See “The War on Public Schools,” by Rachel Cohen.) DeVos is one of the nation’s most influential school-choice advocates, and she’s used her family’s fortune and clout in Republican politics to expand programs that allow more children to attend private and religious schools with taxpayer dollars, all in the name of innovation and opportunity.
“Education is a closed system. It’s a monopoly. A dead end,” DeVos said last year at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Texas. She underscored the need to overcome the political class that keeps America bound to a “ridiculously antiquated” mechanism for educating children, especially children of limited means.
A Choice Appointee: Betsy DeVos, nominee for education secretary, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol, December 1, 2016.
“If we can manage to break free, to open the system and embrace all choices for education, we’ll be first to have the politicians hang awards on their office walls,” and the next generation of kids will be the real winners, DeVos said.
THANKS TO MORE THAN TWO generations of school choice, Milwaukee’s educational system is arguably one of the most open in the nation for children of any urban ZIP code and income level to choose conventional, charter, private, virtual, or even suburban schools, all with taxpayer dollars following them—exactly what DeVos imagines. Incoming Vice President Mike Pence has overseen a rapid creation and expansion of private-school vouchers in his home state of Indiana, which could serve as a blueprint as Trump and his team assess how to put more dollars toward choice options. Understanding Milwaukee’s experience is therefore all the more urgent now that school-choice proponents are in charge of America and its education policies.
The energy behind private-school choice got a major boost in 2010, when the GOP started making gains in statehouses across the country. At that time, 15 states and the District of Columbia hosted 24 private school–choice programs. By 2016, 28 states and D.C. had passed a total of 61 programs, according to the nonprofit advocacy group EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation.
For school vouchers specifically, more programs have been created in the past six years than in the two decades since 1990, when Milwaukee launched its landmark program. Specifically, 11 voucher programs were created between 1991 and the 2010 midterm elections. Fourteen have been approved between 2011 and today, according to statistics from EdChoice.
School-voucher programs historically have allowed taxpayer-funded subsidies to support low-income students in private schools. But new laws passed in states such as Wisconsin and Indiana have relaxed eligibility requirements to allow more middle-class families to participate. Other legislation indirectly benefits private schools with tax dollars. States such as New Hampshire, Montana, and South Dakota offer tax credits to businesses that donate to nonprofits that award grants for qualifying students to attend private schools. Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, and Louisiana now offer individual income tax deductions to parents who pay for private schooling.
The latest voucher-like iteration, education-savings accounts, debuted in 2011 and quickly spread to four more states, including Nevada, where the program is in legal limbo, and Tennessee, where a new program will launch in 2017. Education-savings accounts allow parents to build an à la carte education for their children by paying different providers with a set amount of state funds essentially loaded onto a debit card. In general, proponents argue that all the programs use tax dollars efficiently and disrupt the status quo by giving parents the ultimate freedom: the ability to choose an educational program that best suits their children’s needs.
“This is how families without means will get access to a world-class education,” DeVos said at the same conference last year in Austin. DeVos and her husband, Richard, are heirs to the fortune amassed by Michigan-based Amway, one of the biggest multi-level marketing companies in the world. They also back the powerhouse national advocacy group American Federation for Children, which has spent millions to help elect school choice–friendly lawmakers and to lobby aggressively for favorable legislation that benefits private and religious schools. DeVos believes the delivery of education can only be revolutionized through choice, innovation, and freedom.
But critics worry the school-choice programs are increasingly siphoning off much-needed resources from public schools to private institutions, which don’t have the same legal obligations to publicly disclose all their data or serve all needy children, including those with significant disabilities who are expensive to educate. Skeptics see school-choice advocates as being on a thinly veiled mission to chip away at public-school systems until they’re insolvent, while enriching private interests.
“Their basic money is taxpayer money, yet many have these closed-door policies,” says Gail Hicks, a retired Milwaukee schoolteacher known in local education circles for crusading against low-quality charter and voucher programs with her friend Marva Herndon, a retired programmer. They are both black, and they have grandchildren. Voucher schools in Milwaukee and now in the rest of Wisconsin—thanks to expansions signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker since 2011—are not compelled by law to hold public meetings or disclose high school graduation or dropout rates. They are not obligated to make public any data on student suspension or expulsion or attendance rates, or any information on teachers, from salaries to absenteeism to a simple roster.
“The public doesn’t know about anything going on inside a fly-by-night voucher school until it gets shut down by the state for safety or financial reasons,” Hicks said one night as she and Herndon talked about education issues in Herndon’s basement, a longstanding forum for their discussions. “It’s a disservice to the nation for this stuff to be going on and to be promoted as a cure-all for children of color.”
CREATED IN 1990 BY A COALITION of black parents and school-reform advocates with the blessing of a Republican governor, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program aimed to allow poor parents to withdraw their children from public schools and send them to higher-performing private schools they probably couldn’t otherwise afford.
Today, a little under a third of Milwaukee’s school-age population attends voucher schools. Overall, test-score outcomes for the Milwaukee Public Schools and the private voucher schools are remarkably low, and remarkably similar: On the latest state tests, about 80 percent of children in both sectors were not proficient in English and about 85 percent were not proficient in math. The voucher high schools, however, posted slightly higher 11th-grade ACT scores this year than Milwaukee Public Schools: a 17.5 composite, compared with the district’s 16.5.
Milwaukee, where 40 percent of the 500,000 residents are black, has the second-highest black poverty rate of cities nationwide. Reading achievement for black fourth-graders in Wisconsin ranks second-to-last in the nation, trailing only Michigan (read: Detroit). The gap between high school graduation rates for Wisconsin’s white and black students is the widest nationwide. So is the black-white gap in science achievement. Black men in Milwaukee are incarcerated at a rate higher than anywhere else in the nation.
The voucher program is not to blame for all of that, of course, but some wonder why the major reform hasn’t made more of a difference. The program has bolstered some decent religious schools—mostly Catholic and Lutheran—which would have never maintained a presence in the inner city serving poor children without taxpayer assistance. It’s helped to incubate a couple of private schools that eventually became high-performing charter schools. But it’s extended the same life raft to some abysmally performing schools that parents continue to choose for a variety of reasons besides academic performance. And it’s kept afloat a great number of mediocre programs.
Research shows Milwaukee parents have listed small class sizes and school safety among their top reasons for choosing a voucher school. Safety per se doesn’t equal educational excellence, but parents’ perceptions of safety can drive their decision-making. But are those perceptions accurate? Advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin examined police-call data for Milwaukee’s public and voucher schools in recent years and determined voucher schools to have proportionally fewer requests for assistance, but voucher schools also serve a disproportionately small number of students in high school, where many of the most serious school incidents warranting police attention occur. Objective data on school safety are hard to come by without records of incident reports, suspensions, and expulsions.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at The Seventy-Four, an eduation summit sponsored by the American Federation for Children.
What won’t show up in any data is the glacial improvement in a city where three sectors are engaged in pitched battles for student enrollment and funding: Milwaukee Public Schools with about 76,000 students; the Milwaukee voucher program with just over 28,000 students; and independent charter schools with just over 7,000 students. Entrenched interests have fought so long and so hard over vouchers—the teachers union and Democrats on one side, conservative foundations and Republicans on the other—that the entire landscape often feels anchored to the status quo of low educational outcomes for the neediest students. The calcified positions have made it hard to create and pursue any real plan for improving outcomes for all children, and as a result, significant steps toward across-the-board school accountability have been slow in coming.
Henry Tyson, the superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School, a popular and high-performing voucher school that now serves children in Milwaukee’s central city, has long been frustrated at the lack of state and local political attention given to policies that would help expand high-performing programs and eliminate low-performing ones.
“I am intensely frustrated by the voucher schools that are chronically underperforming over a long period of time,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, any school that has been open three years or more that is under 5 percent proficiency should close, whether that’s a public school, charter school, or voucher school.”
Milwaukee has failed to develop such a mechanism in part because many choice advocates don’t want to give more power to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which they do not believe is an objective overseer. Other advocates refuse to acknowledge that parent choice alone will not always raise the quality of the market.
VOUCHERS IN MILWAUKEE EMERGED from a legacy of racial segregation and efforts to overcome its stifling effects on black children. Milwaukee had long been an industrial city settled by German and other northern European immigrants. Job-seeking black migrants from the Deep South arrived relatively late, coming mainly after World War II, and fast: Milwaukee had the highest African American migration of any Midwestern city between 1950 and 1959, when the black population ballooned by 187 percent, compared with a 16 percent rise in the city’s overall population. But the factory jobs that migrants had hoped to secure were already evaporating, and racially restrictive housing covenants and discriminatory lending practices kept their housing choices limited to a 75-block area north of downtown Milwaukee.
The white anxiety brought on by the sudden influx of poor blacks caused a crisis in the schools. A federal lawsuit brought against Milwaukee Public Schools in the 1960s challenging school segregation prompted many white families to flee to the suburbs. So it was no surprise in 1986 when a state-commissioned report revealed the quality gap between city and suburban schools. Twice as many Milwaukee tenth-graders scored below the national median for their grade levels than their peers in the suburbs, and Milwaukee high school students failed one out of every four classes in which they enrolled, the report said.
By that point, it seemed as if every major reform proposal, from busing to magnet schools to open enrollment, had failed in some critical way for black children in Milwaukee. Enter Howard Fuller, a nationally known school-reform advocate who was at that time working in politics. He tried to rally support at the state level for a black-led district to break off from Milwaukee Public Schools. When that proposal failed, Annette “Polly” Williams—a Democratic state representative who had known Fuller since their days in high school together in Milwaukee—broke ranks with the traditional thinking of her party to align herself with former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who had a keen interest in vouchers.
The concept had been on the minds of conservatives for decades and had been tried in some very small-scale experiments on the East Coast and in California. The avuncular conservative economist Milton Friedman had long popularized the theory that schools would be more efficient and higher-performing if government money flowed directly to parents, and then to the institutions of their choosing. But the movement didn’t get the strength it needed to go mainstream until Milwaukee’s black leaders supported the idea, even if their motivations for doing so differed from those of white conservatives. Williams, a single mother, had watched as the white-dominated response to school-integration orders in Milwaukee had shut out blacks from enrolling in some of their own neighborhood schools. She saw vouchers as a way to give her constituents something they’d never had: A choice outside of the public school system.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaking with supporters Mesa, Arizona.
Williams found a strong ally in the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The foundation had gained power and influence almost overnight in 1985, after a corporate merger between Rockwell International and the Allen-Bradley Company catapulted the charity’s assets from $14 million to more than $290 million. With its new resources, the charity recruited Michael Joyce, a mastermind from the conservative East Coast–based Olin Foundation, to rethink its strategies. Under Joyce, the Bradley Foundation began investing in right-wing think tanks and conservative journals and funding the work of other conservative nonprofits. The Bradley Foundation also sponsored the pivotal book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, written by conservative researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe and published in 1990, which helped shift attitudes around the country in favor of voucher programs.
When the Milwaukee voucher program went into effect, it initially allowed just over 300 children to attend seven private schools with vouchers worth about $2,500 annually. The schools could not be religious and were not allowed to have more than 49 percent of their students on vouchers—both compromises that helped the proposal gain the votes it needed to pass. But parent demand exceeded available spots in nonsectarian schools, and the Bradley Foundation, the Milwaukee business community, and then-Mayor John Norquist, a Democrat, all supported amending the legislation to include religious schools, approved in 1995.
When the voucher program faced a legal challenge from the teachers and administrators unions and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Bradley Foundation was at the ready to fund the defense. The legal support proved invaluable, locally and nationally. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program in 1998. And the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Cleveland’s school-choice program in 2002, which effectively validated Milwaukee’s as well. The Bradley Foundation continues to fund conservative legal groups today, such as the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which hires researchers and lawyers to take on cases that advance the cause of school choice.
As Milwaukee’s voucher program expanded, some better-than-average private religious institutions were able to grow and thrive, like the Messmer Catholic Schools network on the city’s north side. But relatively freewheeling entry requirements for private schools also opened the door to abuse: A convicted rapist opened one voucher school. Leaders of another siphoned off $330,000 of their public funds and spent $65,000 on two Mercedes-Benzes instead of teacher salaries. Another voucher high school was closed by the state for not complying with the requirement for a minimum number of hours of instruction. A student there testified that class time was spent “doing crossword puzzles and shooting dice,” according to a state hearing examiner’s report.
THE MOST ROBUST PERFORMANCE study of Milwaukee’s voucher program didn’t start until 2007, as part of a state-mandated longitudinal assessment that lasted until 2012. The study, led by researchers at the University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project, followed a matched sample of students in each program and ultimately revealed little difference in performance between the public schools and the voucher schools. Their research said students exposed to a voucher school in Milwaukee were more likely to graduate from high school and continue at a four-year college, but the report also noted that more than half the students who started ninth grade in a voucher high school were not still there by 12th grade. One of the strongest predictors of students enrolling in a four-year college, regardless of whether they attended public or voucher schools, came down to just one factor: whether their parents had college degrees.
The results of the study started to cause a break in the alliance of school-choice advocates in Wisconsin. Most notably, Fuller, a respected voice in the field, became an advocate for increased regulation of the program. Williams had already been sidelined, though her work effectively helped spawn a national movement of charter schools.
“I see her as the origin of the choice and charter movement we have today, but the voucher movement had really passed her by in the late 1990s,” says Robin Harris, managing editor of the Education Trust advocacy group in D.C. and a relative of Williams who is writing her biography.
Conservatives had hoped that vouchers would be the model to take off in the wake of the Milwaukee program, but it was charter schools—which were public but could usually sidestep teachers unions, and were independently managed but still beholden to accountability provisions—that gained bipartisan support in most other states.
Williams died in 2014, after years of publicly voicing regrets about her support for the voucher program. She had voted for the expansion that allowed religious schools to participate, but by 2011 she was railing against a plan supported by Governor Walker and GOP leaders in Wisconsin, which called for lifting the income limits on participants in the Milwaukee voucher program, eliminating the enrollment cap, and also expanding the voucher program to the city of Racine.
The avuncular conservative economist Milton Friedman had long popularized the theory that schools would be more efficient and higher-performing if government money flowed directly to parents, and then to the institutions of their choosing.
“It was never supposed to get this big,” Williams said at a public meeting in Milwaukee in the spring of 2011.
These days, Fuller works on education issues out of an office on Marquette University’s campus in downtown Milwaukee, not far from the iconic Gesu Church on the Jesuit campus. “Programs to help the poor, specifically, are always going to be in jeopardy over time,” he said one afternoon while reflecting on how vouchers have evolved in Milwaukee. Fuller started the Black Alliance for Educational Options to advocate for vouchers nationally, but he doesn’t agree with the current conservative thinking that vouchers and private-school choice should be available to people of all incomes. Vouchers should give low-income and working-class people a different education, not people in his income bracket who can already afford to pay for those options, he said.
“I’m trying to convene young people to see if they can focus on quality and be agnostic about school sector, but it may not be possible because of the politics of it,” Fuller says wistfully. “If we could only quit fighting over whether these options should exist, we could focus on the best way to maximize what we have to create the best opportunities for kids.”
FULLER'S ADVOCACY PLUS OTHER pressures for reform have led to more regulation of the voucher program, which has belatedly begun weeding out some of its worst actors. The private school teachers and leaders are now required to at least have bachelor’s degrees. The schools have to obtain accreditation, though lawmakers had to later tighten that language to get rid of irresponsible accreditation agencies. If the state has reason to believe a voucher school is financially unstable, it can require leaders to secure special bonds that assure the state they could pay back public funds if they go belly up. Voucher schools had to administer the same state standardized achievement tests as public schools and publicly report the results starting in 2011, which allowed the public for the first time to look up test scores for each voucher school—more than 20 years after the start of the program.
This year, Wisconsin’s voucher schools have been pulled into the same report-card accountability system as the public schools and districts, but it will still be a few more years before there is enough data in the metrics to actually give the voucher schools a performance rating. There is still no consequence planned for schools that score very, very low, unless there is outright fraud. And some of the earlier oversight measures that helped shine a bit more light into the practices of voucher schools were quietly eliminated in Wisconsin’s last budget session. Those included requirements that voucher schools submit their discipline policies and grade-promotion reports to the state for potential public inspection. Now schools only have to share those details with parents.
Copies of the discipline policies are squirreled away in paper files at the Department of Public Instruction in Madison, which is located inside a blocky government building near the Capitol dome and across the street from a beckoning set of taps at the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. An inspection of those records over several days revealed many voucher schools with discipline policies that call for students to be expelled for “repeated refusal to obey school rules” or for “disruptive behavior,” or even for simply talking back to the teacher. Other policies said students would be subject to “academic dismissal” if they did not accumulate credits in a timely enough manner.
Some school handbooks stated that transfer students would be accepted conditionally for their first year on academic probation, a violation of state law for voucher students. But without accurate records from the schools on the retention, suspension, or expulsion of voucher students, it’s impossible to know if any of the schools actually followed through on such language, or what became of the students.
Grade promotion records were incomplete and inconsistent. The most recent year available, 2014–2015, revealed many voucher schools had a student population that dramatically diminished as the grade levels advanced. This year, Wisconsin finally launched a longitudinal student data system that will track students throughout their educational careers, no matter how many times they switch from public to private schools. But it will be years before the system can shed real light on where students are going, and why.
WHEN PROPONENTS WANT TO showcase a triumphant example of school choice, they often point to Henry Tyson’s school, St. Marcus Lutheran, just north of downtown Milwaukee. Its buildings are gleaming, the expansions paid for over the years by a strong donor network. The school’s roster is up to more than 800 students, in four-year-old kindergarten through eighth grade. About 95 percent of the children attend with the help of a voucher, and nearly all of them are black and poor. Children wear uniforms and have access to music, art, and physical education, a playground and gymnasium, and five special-education teachers. Staff members start each day with a prayer circle, and discipline is strict. Misbehaving students are sometimes sent to stand against the wall in Tyson’s office, a punishment that uses sheer boredom as a deterrent for classroom disruptions.
Tyson likes to say that the school embraces a “whatever it takes” approach to reach students. This fall, staff started offering a girl who was consistently tardy $3 per day to come early and work the school’s breakfast shift. It worked, Tyson said. The school’s state test scores are high relative to city and state average results for low-income and black children: About 27 percent of St. Marcus children were proficient in English and 30 percent were proficient in math on the latest state exams.
Tyson is a charismatic British expat who attended boarding schools as a child and found his calling in urban, religious education. He rejects allegations that high-performing voucher schools “skim” the best students from public schools. Officially, Milwaukee voucher schools must accept all children who apply, meet the income qualifications, and live in the city, though leaders can inform parents that the school might not be able to meet their child’s special-education needs. Higher-performing schools do, however, tend to attract a higher share of parents who are well equipped to make educational decisions. To enroll at St. Marcus, for example, parents have to apply in time for the lottery and sign a covenant agreeing to get their child to school on time and to oversee homework. They have to agree to sit down with teachers in their home at least once a year, and attend parent-teacher meetings. And they have to find their own transportation, as St. Marcus does not provide busing.
That feature caused St. Marcus graduate Ashli Cobbs, 25, to pull her daughter out of the school. After Cobbs lost her factory job, got evicted, and wound up on her mother’s couch in a two-bedroom suburban apartment this past year, she could no longer drive the 40-minute round trip to get her daughter to school every day. The hurdle saddened her, as Cobbs still remembered the focus the school gave her when she transferred in as a middle school student.
“The faith component and the teachers’ expectations—that matters,” Cobbs says. “You can’t say that the people around you and their actions don’t affect you. That’s how we learn from each other.”
St. Marcus successfully challenges the narrative of intractable low achievement for impoverished children in the inner city. But only a small share of children are getting a St. Marcus-like experience when they sign up for the program. Research shows that vouchers have not produced higher test-score results, on average. Some research has pointed to a slight uptick in test scores for public schools as a result of voucher competition. Other research suggests higher graduation rates and lower crime and incarceration rates for students exposed to vouchers. But one of the most recent studies, a December 2015 evaluation by Duke and MIT scholars on the first year of the expanded Louisiana Scholarship Program, showed that attending a voucher school substantially reduced student achievement. The study, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, tracked voucher-school lottery winners and losers in the first year of Louisiana’s new statewide voucher program and found that the winners had lower math scores, and that voucher effects for reading, science, and social studies were also “negative and large.” The study surmised that negative voucher effects might be because low-quality voucher schools were the first to jump into the program. Some voucher advocates dismissed the results by saying that the program started with too many regulations, which drove away the best private schools and opened the door for the most struggling and low-quality programs to grab students and public dollars.
MILWAUKEE'S MIXED EXPERIENCE has not slowed the political momentum of the voucher movement, but it may have helped to shift the narrative. Instead of being championed as a panacea for failing urban schools and a desperately needed option to help the poorest children stuck in the lowest-resourced programs, private-school choice is now being positioned as a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to all families. Instead of discussing how to account for shortcomings of choice programs in the past, advocates paint what feels like a pitfall-free future, where private-school choice is the route to innovation and individualization, the Uber alternative to the school district’s staid taxi.
David Vargan goes over a reading worksheet at St. Anthony School on Milwaukee's south side.
That parallel was vocalized multiple times by school-choice advocates at two recent conferences hosted by the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by former presidential candidate and school-choice advocate Jeb Bush.
“What we need to do is to toil every day and keep pushing for that Berlin Wall moment,” says Kevin Chavous, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and education-reform advocate who supported the launch of the federally funded D.C. voucher program. Chavous is a founding board member of the AFC, and a tall African American with piercing blue-gray eyes and an industrious nature—he’s written entire books on education reform during long-distance flights. He believes that school choice can and will become the dominant method of delivering educational opportunity in America.
“We’re close to that tipping point,” he said in May 2016 during AFC’s annual conference at National Harbor, a resort hugging the Potomac River just south of D.C.
It’s important to remember that private-school choice is still just a tiny sliver of the pie when it comes to publicly funded education in America. Approximately 50 million children attend public schools run by school districts. About 2.5 million attend public charter schools. And only around 400,000 attend private schools with the help of voucher, tax-credit scholarship, or education-savings account, according to EdChoice. But substantial jumps could be around the corner, especially as the programs continue to expand from targeting solely low-income children to being open to all.
Recent polls show that Americans are split in their attitudes on private school choice. But as more state legislatures have approved voucher programs in recent years, nationwide public support for vouchers has fallen, according to new results of a nonpartisan annual poll conducted by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School and published in the affiliate journal Education Next.
Between 2012 and 2016, nationwide public support for vouchers targeted at low-income students fell from 55 percent to 43 percent, a sharper drop than for universal vouchers, where support fell from 56 percent to 50 percent. But within those numbers was a curious trend: Democrats favored vouchers and also tuition tax credits at a higher rate than Republican respondents.
“Republican support for vouchers … is slipping, creating a partisan cleavage in the electorate that is the opposite of the divide observed among Democratic and Republican elected officials,” the researchers wrote.
So how do you provide quality options for those who wish to exercise choice, while also supporting the system serving those who don’t? If we want to see more schools like St. Marcus and fewer schools like Ceria M. Travis Academy, what policies need to be put in motion? Those questions have dogged Wisconsin, especially as a greater share of public education dollars than ever before is funneled to private programs. This year alone, Wisconsin will spend $245 million on the voucher programs in Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide, as well as a new special-needs voucher program.
For its part, Travis Academy will be taking a smaller share of taxpayer dollars than ever this year. In fact, zero. Leader Dorothy Travis-Moore recently lost her legal battle with the state education department, which had sought to close the two schools she ran for failing to comply with financial requirements. Travis-Moore was a veteran public school administrator before receiving a total of almost $50 million since the late 1990s to educate low-income children through the voucher program. Tax records show she spent some of the money to enrich herself and her daughter with six-figure compensation packages while former teachers complained to the media of being shortchanged of wages and classroom resources. Now the state has ordered Travis-Moore to pay back taxpayers the $2.3 million she received in payments for children she couldn’t prove she educated in her mandatory financial filings.
That day of reckoning, however, took the better part of two decades—not a reassuring sign of competition driving higher quality.
And Tromain Collier, the basketball coach turned elementary school teacher? He left Travis Academy in April 2016, after his paychecks came late and then not at all. Today he’s part of a lawsuit with nine other former Travis Academy staff members who are suing Travis-Moore for $45,000 worth of back pay. Their case is scheduled for a hearing in 2017.
It’s unclear where all the children went, but a fair number could have stayed right in the Travis Academy building, where another voucher school, United to Serve Academy, took over this year. Its test scores are just about as low as Travis Academy’s.