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Catholic Education

Voucher godmother skeptical of allies


The godmother of Milwaukee’s low-income private school tuition voucher movement is increasingly skeptical of her erstwhile allies.

In 1989, Annette “Polly” Williams, a black Milwaukee Democratic state assemblywoman, managed to stitch together a coalition of suburban Republicans, urban African-Americans and lobbyists for the Milwaukee Catholic archdiocese and the business community to create an experimental program that would allow state tax dollars to go to private schools on behalf of low-income Milwaukee families.

Today, as school choice has expanded from a strictly nonsectarian program to one that includes religious schools, Williams remains a supporter of its original intent. But she’s increasingly critical of other members of the coalition, starting with the business lobby but also including the Catholic church.

“This program was not designed to help Catholic schools,” Williams said. “It was designed to help parents find the school that was best for them.”

The chief source of friction between Williams and others in the school choice coalition has been the calls by almost everyone but her to open the program to all families, not just the poor.

For Williams, choice has always been about leveling the playing field for poor, inner-city, African-American families. Before she spearheaded the legislation that instituted the voucher program, Williams was part of an abortive campaign that would have carved out a separate, inner-city public school district in Milwaukee.

She knew from the start, she said, that her agenda differed from that of others, but she was willing to make common cause.

“Our goal was empowering parents,” Williams said of herself and her inner-city supporters. Achieving the goal required getting organized. “The more people that are in the organization, the better able you are to achieve this goal. There was an understanding that we all have our own separate agendas.”

“The white people were looking at, ‘How can we get our kids to compete with the Japanese and the Germans,’ “ Williams said. “We were looking at, ‘How can we get our kids to read and write?’ ”

Although Williams criticizes the church in muted terms, she saves her biggest criticism for business interests who were part of the original choice coalition and who have been more vocal since about expanding choice to include all incomes.

But she also parts company with other choice supporters, including the church, on the issue of oversight for choice schools.

In the 1995-96 school year, when choice went through its first major expansion, several schools ended up folding in midyear. At the time, Williams introduced legislation to increase oversight. It failed, and Williams has subsequently criticized private schools for opposing greater oversight, including of their adherence to civil rights laws.

Sounding at times like her own critics, Williams said that religious schools in particular “didn’t want any accountability in the program.”

“The Catholic archdiocese wanted to change the rules that [vouchers] have been operating under for eight years,” Williams said, referring to the regulations upholding state and federal civil rights laws that last summer were taken out of the administrative rules.

Williams offers another prescription for critics of more stringent oversight.

“Can you abide by the rules?” she asked. “If not, don’t get in the program.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999