Last May, Ruth Conniff, editor of “The Progressive,” joined a group of other women on a tour of voucher schools in Milwaukee. The others included another journalist, a state legislator, and Milwaukee grandmothers Gail Hicks and Marva Herndon.
“Herndon and Hicks formed a group called Women Committed to an Informed Community, also known as the “mad grandmas,” to bring attention to the voucher schools popping up all over the largely African American north side of Milwaukee in strip malls, rundown office buildings, old car dealerships, and abandoned factories.”
What they saw should chill the ardor of the most doctrinaire followers of Milton Friedman. Vouchers began in Milwaukee nearly 25 years ago based on the claim that they would save poor black children from “failing” public schools. Today, Milwaukee should be a national symbol of the failure of vouchers. Yet state after state is endorsing vouchers, egged on by the Friedman Foundation and rightwing think tanks.
Let’s be clear. Vouchers, charters, and choice have failed the children of Milwaukee. The city ranks near the bottom of all cities tested by the federal NAEP, barely ahead of Detroit. Black children in Milwaukee score behind their peers in most other cities and states. Study after study shows they don’t get better test scores than their peers in public schools.
“”We are talking about the schools that fall under the category of LifeSkills Academy,” says Hicks, referring to a Milwaukee voucher school that made headlines last year when the couple that owned it fled to Florida, taking with them millions in state education funds and leaving sixty-six students suddenly stranded, with no school.
“Many of the schools Herndon and Hicks are concerned about are religious. But “we are not talking about schools associated with long-established churches,” Hicks says.
“In racially divided Milwaukee, most of the mainline parochial schools that take voucher students are run by Catholic and Protestant churches on the largely Hispanic south side, Herndon explains.
“On the north side, it’s just loaded with fly-by-night, hole-in-the-wall schools, gas station schools,” Herndon says.
“The $6,442 per pupil in public funds attached to vouchers is more than the cost of tuition at many parochial schools. That, along with start-up funds for new voucher schools, creates a powerful incentive for cash-strapped parochial schools and unscrupulous, fly-by-night operators alike. As a result, parents in voucher districts have been inundated with marketing calls, flyers, and advertisements at taxpayer expense urging them to send their kids to private school for free.
“Nowhere is the problem with turning public schools over to private business more evident than in Milwaukee, the birthplace of school choice.
“Academy of Excellence” is spelled out in snap-on plastic letters above a phone number on a temporary-looking sign on West North Avenue.
“A teacher stands in the doorway of a rundown office building with peeling orange paint on cinderblock walls, watching children jump rope in the parking lot between rows of cars. A few little girls crouch on the sidewalk, drawing with chalk.
“Pastor George Claudio of the StraightWay Vineyard Christian Fellowship greets us inside.
“He has been serving as principal here since September, although he has no background in education, he explains.
“I’m not a trained principal, so my approach has been more of a business and leadership approach,” he says. “I don’t know much about academics, so I’m on a crash course, relying on the teachers in the building.
“Everybody here is way below the poverty level,” he adds, as we peer into a classroom where four-year-old kindergarteners are lying down for a nap on the dirty indoor/outdoor carpeting. A teacher snaps out the lights.
“Despite the dirty carpet and peeling walls, and a first-floor bathroom with no toilet paper, no paper towels, and heavy scribbling in the stalls and over the sink, Pastor Claudio is proud of how much better things look here since school started in September, after a major cleanup. Last fall, he tells us, the lights didn’t work.
“This building has flipped through several voucher schools. The last resident was BEAM Academy, an Edison charter school. “Edison” plastic tags still adorn some of the classroom doors. Another Academy of Excellence school, on the south side, is in even worse shape, the pastor tells us.
“There are three Academy of Excellence schools in Milwaukee, run by the Association of Vineyard Churches, a conservative, evangelical sect.
“Every morning, Pastor Claudio leads the school in a daily devotional.
“We use the Bob Jones University curriculum,” he says.
The pastor says that two-thirds of the students probably would benefit from special education, but the school has no trained special education staff. Indeed, teachers in voucher schools don’t need teaching certification. Instead of special education, the children get tutors–college kids and volunteers from the church. In the middle school science class, a sign on the wall says, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth—Genesis 1:1″ a poster in the hallway says: “God can see your heart and he knows that it is wicked.”
The school will double in size this fall when it enrolls 200 students from Myanmar who don’t speak English.
“The latest battle of the mad grandmas is against new laws that would force the sale of public school buildings to private school operators.
“The public schools are just being raped,” says Hicks. “A lot of schools no longer have gym, no longer have art, language, higher math. Schools don’t have the money because they’re sticking money in charter schools and vouchers, which are businesses.”
“In Milwaukee, eighth graders are attending what purports to be a public school to study science and learn creationism.
“Third graders are absorbing a strange home brew of art, finance, and bible passages.
“Immigrant children straight from refugee camps in Myanmar are landing in a school that looks like a refugee center, to be immersed in English and a harsh religious ideology that teaches them that their hearts are wicked.
“All of this is supported by the public with tax dollars.
“It looks like the end of society.”
Ruth Conniff’s reporting is persuasive evidence that the once strong belief in separation of church and state was sensible protection for the common school system. Now that the wall of separation has been penetrated, all manner of Bible schools are getting public dollars. Does anyone believe that the children of Milwaukee are better served in these schools than in the public schools? And what remains of public education when children are withdrawn to attend voucher schools and charter schools?
Can anyone honestly say that the children in these publicly-supported voucher schools are getting a good education that prepares them for college and careers in the 21st century?