Politics & Policy

Milwaukee Bucks

Friends of school choice in Milwaukee are breathing a sigh of relief, because it looks like their model program will survive a major political transition.

Last month, Jim Doyle was sworn in as Wisconsin’s first Democratic governor since Tommy Thompson created America’s biggest and most important school-choice project more than a decade ago. Thompson’s brainchild currently enables some 11,600 low-income kids to attend private schools. Doyle didn’t run on an anti-voucher platform, but the state’s powerful teachers union endorsed him, and its members would love nothing more than to abolish school choice in its birthplace.

In December, however, Doyle announced a truce: “I’m against any expansion of the voucher program, but I think keeping it at about its current level is where it should be.” This was consistent with a pledge Doyle made to school-choice supporters earlier in the year, when he was in a three-way primary.

The new governor will have a chance to make good on his promise next week, when he unveils his budget proposal. Like most states, Wisconsin is facing revenue problems, and school-choice supporters want to make sure this doesn’t become an excuse for gutting their innovation. In a recent letter to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Doyle said it wouldn’t: “The Milwaukee school choice and charter programs will not be more adversely affected than other education programs.”

This is an important moment for the school-choice movement, because it marks the first time that one of its three showcase projects has operated with a Democrat in the governor’s office. In Ohio, the Cleveland scholarship program sprang to life under GOP governor George Voinovich (now a senator), and continues under Republican Bob Taft. The Florida initiative is a Jeb Bush product.

None of this is to say that Wisconsin Democrats have changed their tune on school choice. They may hold the governorship, but they don’t have the legislature: Last November, Republicans retained the state house and took over the state senate. They accomplished this latter feat, in fact, because school-choice advocates formed a PAC and helped tip three close races. The result is that Democrats can’t take aim at Milwaukee’s vouchers without some GOP assistance. The issue has seen aisle-hopping before, of course. Thompson could not have enacted school choice during his tenure without the critical support of several Democratic lawmakers. If Doyle were determined to target the Milwaukee scholarships he might find a way. Instead, he’s learning to live with school choice — the first time a Democratic chief executive has had this experience.

Doyle’s refusal to expand school choice isn’t a big deal, at least not in the near term. The program currently makes available 15,000 slots but doesn’t fill them, in part because Milwaukee’s top private schools have run out of seats. There’s a multimillion-dollar effort underway to expand capacity. For the time being, however, the school-choice program can grow by more than 3,000 students even under Doyle’s no-growth line.

Following last summer’s Zelman decision last summer, in which the Supreme Court determined that Cleveland’s school-choice program does not violate the Constitution, there was some hope school choice would blossom around the country. Indeed, there’s a school-choice element in President Bush budget proposal. As of right now, however, there’s no indication that school-choice legislation will succeed in a state capitol anywhere this year, even though bills are sure to be introduced in Colorado, Utah, Texas, and elsewhere. The seemingly achievable goal of expanding Ohio’s program to cities beyond Cleveland also looks unlikely, because the Buckeye State’s government is embroiled in tricky budget negotiations; in Columbus, it seems like there’s no time or energy for anything else.

Which means school-choice supporters may have to take all their satisfaction from inertial victories — and the continuing success of Milwaukee’s program is one of them.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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