An Idea that Made Milwaukee Famous

by Patrick J. Buchanan – June 12, 1998

…If the poor get $5,000 vouchers to escape the blackboard
jungles, while near-poor neighbors, whose taxes subsidize
those vouchers, do not — is that just?…

Historians may well mark June 9 as the D-Day of the school-choice movement in America. On this day, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ruled that tax-backed tuition vouchers, worth $5,000 each, can be deposited at Bible Christian or St. Teresa’s.
Only the U.S. Supreme Court now stands between parents and an exploding free market in primary and secondary education.

For years, Milwaukee provided vouchers to a few poor parents to enable them to pull their kids out of the worst of the city schools and put them in private schools. Then, the program was expanded to religious schools, largely Catholic and Lutheran. That brought the ACLU cavalry on the run. But the June 9 decision was a crushing defeat for them and the U.S. educational establishment — for Judge Donald Steinmetz ruled that Milwaukee’s vouchers easily meet the Supreme Court’s rigid First Amendment test.

The Milwaukee vouchers have a secular not a religious purpose: to advance education. There is no entanglement between church and state, and the money does not go to religious schools but to parents. They decide which school their children attend. A child qualifies, said the judge, “not because he or she is a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim or an atheist; it is because he or she is from a poor family and is a student in the embattled Milwaukee Public Schools.”

So compelling was the 4-2 opinion that the dissenting judges filed only a paragraph of protest, mumbling something about Wisconsin’s constitution prohibiting an established religion. It was the judicial equivalent of holding up one’s hands and bleating “no mas.”

Some 15,000 Milwaukee children will now qualify for $5,000 vouchers this fall. Gov. Tommy Thompson believes 10,000 will use them. Milwaukee and America are about to get their first real test of the cost-benefit ratio of freedom of choice in education.

This is cause for rejoicing, and hats off to those who have persevered against the National Education Association. Yet, even if the Milwaukee victory is validated by the high court, the battle for public opinion is not yet won.

True, poor parents overwhelmingly favor vouchers to enable them to save their kids from drug-infested, violence-ridden schools where no learning takes place, except the learning of the values of the street. True, religious and private schools are ready to take in these kids who never had a chance. And, true, state legislators and even Congress have come around to stand behind school choice.
But there is still massive skepticism among the public — not all of it traceable to anti-religious bigotry. There are problems with any restrictive voucher program that must be faced.

First is the matter of justice. If Mrs. Jones, who is on welfare, gets a $5,000 voucher for Sally, who goes off to St. Teresa’s, but Mrs. Smith, who earns $35,000, does not qualify because she is not “poor” — and her Sara has to stay in P.S. 13 — is that fair to Mrs. Smith? If the poor get $5,000 vouchers to escape the blackboard jungles, while near-poor neighbors, whose taxes subsidize those vouchers, do not — is that just?

Second, the school-choice movement needs to be aware of the fears of parents who have scrimped and saved to move out of neighborhoods where schools are dreadful, and now live in a district where the schools are wonderful. How will those parents react when Little Alvin the Drug Dealer, with his gold chains and Glock semi-automatic, and his fellow gang members, show up at the new school, $5,000 vouchers in hand?

Vouchers may be the passports to hope and opportunity for thousands of Milwaukee parents, but they may also serve as visas to new turf for hoodlum kids who made those inner-city schools the war zones some have become. What happens when a boy at Bible Baptist is sliced or stabbed by a “voucher student” at gym or some little girl is molested? A fear of voucher kids coming to suburbia has led to defeat after defeat at the polls for voucher programs.

These are not, however, arguments against all vouchers, but they are arguments for granting vouchers to all parents, not just the poor but the middle class, so every family has the same freedom of choice as to how and where they wish to educate their children.

And there also needs to be freedom of choice for teachers and principals. Our public schools should have the same authority as religious schools — to demand homework, to impose dress codes and discipline, to teach religion and values and, yes, to expel Little Alvin. Only then will there be genuinely free and fair competition.

Meanwhile, on Wisconsin!