The Time Has Come: A Look at School Choice in Milwaukee

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

Whether attributed to Victor Hugo in “Histoire d’un Crime” or Gustav Aimard in the French novel “Les Frances-Tireurs,” this adage has served as a testament to truth for nearly two centuries. From the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the civil rights movement of the 60’s, pivotal ideas sparked in the best interest of society have given flame to a movement that has changed the world.

Twenty-seven years ago, an idea conceived between a Democrat State Legislator and a Republican Governor has given rise to a revolutionary new concept that is once again laying the foundation for substantial reform. This bi-partisan effort, something now considered implausible, established the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), a state-funded school choice system that was the first of its kind in the country. The pilot program gave a few hundred students with limited financial means the opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to attend a school that best suits their needs and receive a voucher to cover the cost. Nearly three decades later, there are 52 private school choice programs in 26 states. Nearly 500,000 students nationwide are now enrolled in a private school choice program. Wisconsin, which was the catalyst for this initiative, has seen the program expand from Milwaukee to Racine and, eventually, to the entire state. In 2016, the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP) was adopted and parents who face even greater challenges now have additional opportunities they did not have in the past.

Recent enrollment numbers from the Department of Public Instruction has shown exponential growth. Since its inception, the MPCP has grown from just a few hundred students to 28,702. The Racine Program now has 3,007 and the statewide program (WPCP) has flourished to 4,540 in just a few years. Despite extremely narrow eligibility requirements, the SNSP has 246 students participating in the program in just its second year.

Change does not come without resistance though. What was not fully expounded by Hugo or Aimard is that the second most powerful thing in the world is an idea whose time has not yet gone. Opponents of school choice, fully invested in an antiquated system, are willing to compromise opportunity for children any way possible. Lacking facts, logic, or reason, they systematically attack the program with clear fallacies. In Milwaukee, they refuse to sell abandoned Milwaukee Public School buildings to choice operators despite legal mandates. State legislators, who often themselves were fortunate enough to have access to school choice options, vote against programs and block access to others. All across the country, any school choice legislation that challenges the status quo inevitably faces a costly court battle.

Much the same as we reflect on the loathsome history of denying an individual access to a school, diner, or a water fountain based on the color of their skin as something incomprehensible, so to will society consider denying children access to quality education alternatives solely on financial means equally unacceptable.

The momentum of support for school choice is obvious. The rapid expansion of enrollment is clear. All polling proves it. Opponents may resist, but school choice is an idea whose time has come.