e-mail us
School voucher advocates want ‘right to choose’

This year’s annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association focused on school choice, with Milwaukee’s experience with school vouchers celebrated and promoted with a one-day symposium titled “Partner for Justice: Catholic Schools and Parental School Choice.”

Barbara Keebler, director of communications for the association, said “School choice is what brought us to Milwaukee. It’s really in the forefront in terms of issues we’re promoting.”

Milwaukee has one of only three publicly funded voucher programs in the nation.

It began more than a decade ago, sponsored by a disparate coalition that included the city’s business community, parent groups, and local and state elected officials. The voucher program was expanded to include religious schools in 1995 and has survived legal challenges. The need-based program gives vouchers to 8,500 students in Milwaukee to attend the school of their choice. Most but not all of these schools are Catholic.

That school choice programs are now being presented as a social justice issue was clear from the symposium. A video on the Milwaukee voucher program concluded with the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome,” while the repeated references to the “right to choose” suggested at times the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement.

Among the speakers at the symposium were Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee schools and president of Black Alliance for Educational Options, which runs pro-school-choice commercials in television markets across the country, and Clint Bolick, the leader in the nationwide litigation effort to defend school choice programs.

“We want poor people in Milwaukee to be able to make the same choices for their children as President Clinton can make for his,” said Fuller in his keynote address.

In an editorial called “School Choice: The Turned Tide,” Leonard DeFiori, president of the Catholic educational association, writing in the association’s journal Momentum, said, “We are winning the battle of how the debate is framed. … ever more frequently, the issue is being framed (correctly) as a moral one. School choice supported by vouchers is being seen as a justice issue, a fairness issue. Why shouldn’t the poor have the same ability as the affluent to pick a good school for their children?”

DeFiori has called school choice the last civil rights frontier. Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, who is credited with playing a key role in the success of the school choice program in Milwaukee, has said it’s a right, not a privilege, for parents to determine their children’s education.

Will marketing school choice programs as a social justice issue make them more successful? Perhaps. Certainly the election of George W. Bush as president has brought fresh hope to the school choice movement.

“We think it’s a new day now,” said Keebler. “We have a renewed spirit about it. That was underscored by dedicating such a large portion of the convention to that issue and promoting that issue.”

-- Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001