The Dark Side of School Reform

In her new book, author Barbara Miner shares why she feels charter schools and vouchers may not be all they're cracked up to be.
Race and class play a role in education in Milwaukee, and most cities around the country. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jan 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Barbara Miner calls her hometown of Milwaukee a symbol of Middle America.

In that regard, Miner, author of the recently released Lessons From the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, says that America should take notice of Milwaukee’s school system. What’s happening there, she says, could happen in anyone’s city.

“Milwaukee’s public schools may not have the funding to survive,” Miner told TakePart in an interview. The city was the first to have publicly financed vouchers. At the time, she said, the talk was “that we have to give kids a chance to escape these dying schools.” Twenty-three years after the Winsconsin state legislature approved vouchers, she says, “academic achievement is still in the toilet.”

Vouchers allow parents to take the allotted state per-pupil funding to attend a private school of their choice, which is often parochial. Since vouchers seldom cover the entire tuition, parents also cover costs.

In Wisconsin, Miner notes, African-American fourth graders carry the lowest reading levels in the country. The invention of vouchers, in many instances, was simply a path to modern-day segregation, she writes in her book.

But to tell that story, she examines Milwaukee today in a broader scope to its history, beginning in 1957, the year the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series. Then Milwaukee was the machine shop capital of the world. The 1970s shows Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, which were set in Milwaukee, epitomized what an ideal world Milwaukee was in the 1950s.

“We were the epitome of the 1950s success story,” Miner says. “We are known for our beer, brats, and Packers, but we are the most hyper-segregated city in the country. We have some of the worst achievement gaps in the world. In the black community, infant mortality is worse than in the Gaza Strip. The jobless rate among black working-age men is 50 percent. You have to wonder what the hell happened to Milwaukee?”

Miner, a journalist and former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, uses her book to craft an educational biography of Milwaukee from its school integration in the 1950s and ’60s to its struggle today to balance public schools and the battle over vouchers in the district.

Miner has followed Milwaukee’s voucher program since 1990. She says back then the program was promoted as an experimental initiative that would aid a few hundred poor children in seven community schools. She says that in reality, it wasn’t about helping the impoverished at all, but rather about private—and religious—schools getting public dollars without much, if any, oversight.

She writes in her book that “an unusual” alliance helped create the city’s voucher program. She notes that “conservatives, libertarians, black nationalists, business leaders and religious advocates in both political parties” initially backed the program. Miner says that one reason vouchers gained a foothold in Milwaukee was because of the popularity of Catholic schools.

With the inclusion of more religious schools, the voucher system shifted by the end of the 1990s.

“The free-market consumer mentality dominated,” she writes in her book. “Parents focused on their individual child, principals on their individual school. Voucher schools defended their right to be funded by the taxpayer yet remain private schools. Charter schools arrived and soon protected their particular niche.”

Currently, about 25,000 students from Milwaukee receive vouchers to attend private school. The voucher program is the state’s third largest school district in size. The changes in Milwaukee’s school district over the last 20 years have spread throughout the country and continue to shape the current national education discussion.

Charter schools, too, Miner adds, are changing the face of education in this country. She worries that franchises are investing in charter schools, which were initially chartered by the school district as experiments. But wealthy businessmen soon saw an opportunity to siphon public education dollars and craft their own types of schools.

“It is basically the Walmart type of education,” she says pointing to the Walton family in Arkansas who has an interest in charter schools and vouchers. She calls charters a “veneer of public schools.”

Charters and vouchers trouble Miner. If public education decays, what then?

Wisconsin’s controversial Republican Governor Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature have maintained or expanded the state’s voucher program. The same is happening in states across the country, including in Indiana and Louisiana.

Miner believes that we must fight for public schools. “Public education plays a unique role,” she says. “It is guaranteed and protected by our state constitution—every state constitution.”