- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

As vice president of a large urban school board, I have a message to parents of every public school child in America: Private school choice is one of the best things that ever happened to my city's public schools.

Many will be surprised to hear an elected member of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Board of Directors say that. They'd be even more surprised to learn that several of my board colleagues agree that school choice is strengthening our public schools.

Milwaukee's experience with school choice flatly contradicts the propaganda of its opponents, who mislead citizens to think that school choice will harm children "left behind" in public schools. The exact opposite is true in Milwaukee, where we have the nation's oldest and largest program of tax-supported vouchers for low-income parents.

School choice fundamentally has changed Milwaukee's public education mindset. Before the Milwaukee parental choice plan, some in MPS seemed to have the view that 'we own the children of Milwaukee.' Then, only wealthier parents had choice. If you were poor and lived in Milwaukee, you were going to go to MPS. End of story. A system that believes its students lack options lacks any incentive to perform.

Parental choice changed all that not that the competitive spirit seized the public schools overnight. In the early 1990s, public schools looked for ways to kill the program. A big change came in 1998, when Wisconsin's Supreme Court upheld the program's constitutionality. As a labor union member and an electrician by trade, I know a little bit about high voltage situations. When the court upheld vouchers, it sent a shock through the public school system. With the realization that low-income parents now had options, the public education establishment knew it would have to improve.

The good news is it has. As our former governor, Tommy Thompson, said, there are now more educational choices in Milwaukee than in any American city. And we are not just talking about parent choice of private schools. In our public schools, I see change-through-choice taking place in three dimensions:

• Tens of thousands of parents now have more choice of public and private schools.

• At more than 100 schools, principals, teachers and parents on governing councils interview teachers and choose those who fit the school's program.

• More autonomous schools now may freely choose which services they need from the central administrative office.

• Parents choosing schools. Today in Milwaukee, parents of nearly 10,000 low-income children use choice to enroll their child in a private school. Parents of another 5,000 children exercise their option to use charter schools, including institutions such as high-achieving Fritsche Middle School or the technology-intensive Cyber School in the Parklawn Project. More choice is on the way, as a new Neighborhood Schools Initiative will give parents more latitude in selecting nearby schools instead of subjecting their children to busing. At every turn, it's a choice-driven approach, where parents, not the school system, decides which school is best for each child.

• School-based teacher selection. With teacher union cooperation, schools are now free to opt for an "interview-based" teacher selection process, in place of the old seniority system. More than 100 of Milwaukee's schools have chosen the interview process, giving schools significant ability to seek teachers who make the best philosophical fit for that school. It's a degree of school-based autonomy other cities talk about but Milwaukee delivers. Again, credit choice for turning up the heat on public school change.

• School-based budgeting. Again, it's an idea every major city system talks about, but few seem willing to try. Our board makes budget allotments to each individual school, giving them the power to "buy back" from central administration the services they decide they need with schools remaining free to re-program the rest for instructional purposes. We challenge the central administrators to make the case for their services directly to the schools. Thus far, our effort to create a market-test for administrative services seems to be working.

Will all this change really make public schools better? Our new accountability report shows that the MPS high school dropout rate declined for the fourth year in a row. Suspensions are down, too. The percentage of students showing proficiency in math and reading is up. Of course there is much more to do, but these indicators are finally moving in the right direction.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently editorialized: "Much of what the school system is doing to improve gained impetus because of the expansion of choice in Milwaukee." Indeed, without school choice and charters, I don't think we would be seeing anything like the change taking place in Milwaukee's public schools.

The idea that public schools need to improve has been around a long time. It took the incentive of private school choice to make public schools change.

Ken Johnson, a member of the AFL-CIO, is an elected director of the Milwaukee Public School Board.

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