Splits Widen Within Wisconsin Voucher Movement

By Barbara Miner

Rep. Polly Williams makes a point during the public hearing April 22.

Long-simmering differences among voucher supporters in Wisconsin have burst into the open over legislation designed to protect non-religious private schools from getting caught up in legal challenges to religious school choice.

On one side of the dispute are Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams (D-Milw.), an African-American Democrat often touted as the founder of the Milwaukee voucher program, and non-religious voucher schools such as Harambee Community School and Medgar Evers Academy. On the other side are powerful voucher interests such as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce; the Wisconsin Catholic Conference; Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a scholarship program for religious schools; and Parents for School Choice, a group set up to lobby for religious vouchers.

Earlier this spring, Williams introduced voucher legislation that does not include religious schools. Voucher supporters who oppose Williams’ bill fear that if her legislation passes, the courts may decide they do not have to rule on religious school vouchers because the question is moot. “The bill changes current state law while that law is in the courts,” Tim Sheehy of the MMAC said at a public hearing April 22 on the bill.

Williams argues that the conservative and business communities are so focused on religious school vouchers that they are willing to sacrifice the interests of children currently in the program, most of whom are African-American or Latino. She further maintains that they aligned with her in the past merely for tactical reasons. “The Republicans and conservatives needed a credible base upon which to push and legitimize this [voucher] issue,” she said at the public hearing.


Williams’ bill has focused attention on the increasingly public split within the tenuous coalition of African Americans, Democrats, and conservative Republicans that came together to help pass Milwaukee’s original 1990 voucher legislation, which at the time included only nonreligious private schools. What is potentially crippling for the coalition is that Williams maintains that voucher supporters such as the MMAC cannot be trusted when they say they care about low-income Black children.

“When I formed a coalition with Tim Sheehy and the Catholic Archdiocese and all of those people who say they supported us, I did so because it was a way of helping my parents,” Williams told Rethinking Schools. “I knew all along they didn’t care about my children. They cared about their agenda.”

Powerful interests such as the MMAC have “no moral authority in our community,” Williams continued. “If they really really cared about our community the way they say, we would not be in such dire need right now. They have all the power and money in their hands. They could help make the conditions better in our community. But they don’t.”

Milwaukee’s original voucher program was upheld by the courts. In 1995, legislation was passed that expanded the program to include religious schools. That legislation landed in the courts on grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Implementation of the expansion is on hold pending outcome of the court case.

In the meantime, the courts have said that beginning in the 1997-98 school year, the voucher program must return to its pre1995 status. The pre-1995 legislation limits the number of students at a private school who are eligible to receive vouchers to 65% of the total enrollment — a requirement that will cause financial difficulty for some voucher schools. The earlier legislation also limits the total number of voucher students to 1.5% of the Milwaukee school district, or about 1,650 students, thus compromising the program’s ability to expand.

Currently, 20 non-religious private schools are taking part in the Milwaukee voucher program and approximately 1,650 low-income students are receiving vouchers of about $4,300 per student. In the first five years of the program, 73% of the voucher students were African American, 21% Latino, and 5% white. Most of the students in religious schools are white. Within Catholic Archdiocesan elementary schools in Milwaukee, for instance, only 10% were African American in 1994-95, according to court documents filed by the NAACP. In the four Archdiocesan high schools in Milwaukee, 5% of the students were African-American in the fall of 1996, according to Archdiocesan figures. Pius XI, the largest one and the only one that is co-educational, was 3% African American. Most of the African-American Catholic high school students are at Messmer, a non-Archdiocesan school that is 80% Black. Within the Milwaukee Public Schools, 59% of the students in 1995-96 were African American, 11% Latino, and 24% white.

The mainstays of the voucher program are three community schools with a long history. Schools that opened after the voucher program became law have tended to have more financial and academic difficulties. If non-religious voucher schools are forced to limit the number of voucher students to 65%, some may face serious financial difficulties and, potentially, could close. In the 1995-96 school year, two voucher schools closed in mid-year and two others faced loss of staff and students due to financial problems.

Some voucher schools have had problems attracting private-paying students. Six schools currently are between 90% and 100% voucher students, according to unaudited figures from the state Department of Instruction. Another three are well over the 65% figure. The schools with a large percentage of voucher students tend to be African-American community schools.

Sister Callista Robinson, chief executive administrator of Harambee Community School, said at the public hearing that her school supported Williams’ legislation. “My parents are in my face, asking the questions,” she said, “and I do not want to have to say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come back.’”

Others who spoke or registered in favor of Williams’ bill included Sister Virgine of Urban Day School and Milwaukee School Board member John Gardner.


The main fear of voucher supporters opposed to Williams’ bill is that it will prevent the courts from upholding the constitutionality of religious school choice, as they believe the courts will do. They further argue that if religious schools are not part of the voucher program, the options are limited for parents wanting a publicly funded alternative to Milwaukee Public Schools.

Dan McKinley, head of Partners Advancing Values in Education, said he had utmost respect for Williams but that tactically he had “very serious reservations about removing religious schools from the bill.”

“If you take them out now,” he said, “the odds [are unclear] of them getting back in again.”

When the voucher program was expanded in 1995 to include religious schools, the Republicans controlled both

houses of the legislature; the Democrats now hold a majority in the Senate. In addition, the voucher legislation was folded into the state’s omnibus budget bill. Legislators never had to vote specifically on whether they agreed with the expansion to religious schools. At the time, voucher opponents had argued that if the expansion had been a separate bill, it might not have passed because it didn’t have sufficient state-wide support. Among other issues, the voucher program is limited to schools and students within the city of Milwaukee.

Other voucher supporters who spoke or registered at the hearing against Williams’ bill included Pilar Gonzales, co-director of Parents for School Choice, and representatives of several religious schools, such as Brother Bob Smith of Messmer High School. Representatives from the offices of Gov. Tommy Thompson and Mayor John Norquist, who support vouchers, were not at the hearing.

Williams told Rethinking Schools that the word was that the governor did not want her bill to get out of committee and pass the Assembly. The governor’s fear apparently is that the Democratic-controlled Senate might pass the bill to embarrass him and force him to choose between vetoing Williams’ bill or signing it and potentially jeopardizing the court case.

Rod Hise, deputy communications director for Gov. Thompson, would not comment on Williams’ allegation. He said the governor has not yet reviewed Williams’ bill. Hise said that he did not know when the governor would review the bill nor when a decision would be made on when to do so.

Sherry Street, a staff assistant to Mayor Norquist, said the mayor does not support Williams’ bill.

Howard Fuller, former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and a prominent African-American supporter of vouchers, did not return phone calls requesting comment on Williams’ bill.

While the public hearing focused on the issue of religious school vouchers, other issues have caused tensions. For instance, voucher supporters such as Mayor Norquist and Michael Joyce, head of the conservative Bradley Foundation, have not only stressed the importance of expanding vouchers to include religious schools but have also said that they would like to see middle-class students eligible to receive vouchers. Currently, only low-income students may receive vouchers, a policy that Williams supports.

Another sticking point is that Williams wants certain accountability measures, in part to guard against the possibility of private schools screening out or disproportionately expelling African-American students. Williams’ bill calls for biannual reports from private schools in the program that compare academic achievement, attendance, parental involvement, and dropout, suspension, and expulsion rates to those of Milwaukee Public Schools. Similar language was specifically struck from the 1995 legislation.

Given the fluid nature of politics, it is unclear how the dispute will play itself out. But Williams says she is willing to press her differences. “I want the people in the community to know exactly what is going on,” she told Rethinking Schools. “I am not going to be quiet.”