Organizing School Choice

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1986

One of the first major initiatives of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation was to bring school choice to its home city of Milwaukee. In so doing, it both revolutionized local schooling and created a powerful demonstration project for the rest of the country. This required policy and political alliances with black community activists in Milwaukee and the administration of Republican governor Tommy Thompson, who were jointly developing legislation that would allow low-income children trapped in poor public schools to attend private and parochial schools. A small program was launched and grew steadily in size and strength. During the 1990s it survived repeated legal assaults and political challenges, becoming the country’s longest-living and most-watched private school-choice program in the United States. (See 1986 entry on our companion Education list.) By the 2014-15 academic year, more than 26,000 students were attending 113 schools under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Milwaukee’s successes inspired similar voucher and school-choice programs in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, and other states. Research on student performance indicates that school choice improves high-school graduation rates, college admittance, and college persistence. While participants typically enter their choice schools one to two years behind grade level, achievement test results at choice schools are equal to or higher than at public schools. Voucher programs save taxpayer dollars (the Milwaukee program reduced state spending by $52 million in 2011) and encourage public schools to improve by applying competitive pressure.

The Milwaukee program came under renewed pressure in 2011 when the ACLU and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint alleging that the private schools that parents were choosing for their children were not following disability law. In 2013 the Obama administration’s Department of Justice Civil Rights Division sent the Wisconsin education superintendent a letter pressing the ACLU’s arguments, and threatening that “the United States reserves its right to pursue enforcement through other means.” The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a public-interest law firm partly funded by the Bradley and Kern foundations, defended the program.