Some Black Leaders Are Divided Over Who Benefits from Milwaukee’s School Voucher Program

Howard Fuller (left) is one of the architects of the voucher program in Milwaukee; Wendell Harris led early opposition to vouchers.
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The Trump administration has made school choice, vouchers in particular, a cornerstone of its education agenda. This has generated lots of interest in how school voucher programs across the country work and whom they benefit. 

The oldest school voucher program was created in Milwaukee in 1990 with a singular focus on African-American students living in poverty. This school year, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program issued nearly 28,000 vouchers for low-income kids to attend dozens of private and religious schools at public expense.

Over the years, though, most voucher recipients have performed no better academically than their public school peers. In some cases they’ve done worse. So who exactly is benefiting? It’s a question that has raised serious misgivings in Milwaukee’s African-American community. So much so that some of the city’s prominent black leaders today are divided.

Howard Fuller and Wendell J. Harris, in many ways, represent that split.

Harris is currently on the Milwaukee school board. As a member of the NAACP’s education committee in Wisconsin, he was one of the original plaintiffs who sued the state in 1990 in a failed effort to block vouchers.

Fuller, a professor at Marquette University, is one of the architects of the voucher program. He’s also a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national pro-voucher and school choice group.

Fuller’s support for vouchers is pretty straight-forward. He says most of Milwaukee’s African-American students are trapped in failing schools. These kids’ parents, says Fuller, should have the right to choose a better school for their children because very little else that the African-American community has fought for has helped rescue poor black children in need of good schools.

“After (Brown vs. Board of Education)”, says Fuller, “people thought that integration was going to lead to equal education for black kids. It didn’t. Since then, there’s a long history in Milwaukee to try and get poor black children educated.”

People back then, Fuller adds, “didn’t know just how far behind black children were, and there were administrators who didn’t want that data to get out. Some said it would give fodder to racists who believed that black children could not learn.”

Way before vouchers, Fuller says, black leaders in Milwaukee even proposed an all-black school district to address the specific needs of African-American children.

“People accused us of being racists, segregationists and on and on,” says Fuller.

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Source: NPR |