School voucher panel presents sharply differing opinions

A spirited and wide-ranging debate over the merits of school vouchers was the order of the night Tuesday as six panelists met in the Alumni Memorial Union for "Equality in Education," a discussion sponsored by the Marquette chapter of College Republicans.

A diverse collection of liberals and conservatives, state policymakers and on-the-ground school officials and private and public affiliates, the panel came to no clear conclusions over the course of its hour-and-a-half debate.

Milwaukee's policy, created by the Wisconsin legislature in 1990, of allowing parents to send their children to private, often religious, schools if their local public school isn't meeting federal education standards — the so-called "voucher" or "choice" system — elicited peppery arguments and, subsequently, rebuttals from the panel.

"Choice was and continues to be the answer," said state Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) who chairs the Assembly Education Reform Committee. "We are a national model (for school choice) and people are looking at us for their own changes."

"This campaign should not be called 'Lift the Cap,' it should be called 'Lift the Crap,'" Gerard Robinson, senior fellow at Marquette's Institute for the Transformation of Learning, said of the campaign to get Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to roll back the limits on how many students can use the voucher system. "We're talking about human beings here, trying to go to school."

Not all the panelists supported the voucher system or even school choice in general.

Dennis Oulahan, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, a public education advocacy group, said the difference in standards between private schools concerned him and that private schools were less able to accommodate handicapped students or those with learning disabilities.

The issue of federal funds going to religious schools was also a sticking point for Oulahan.

"I believe that public moneys should always be subject to scrutiny," he said. "I believe in the separation of church and state. The First Amendment — I agree with that."

Likewise, Peter Blewett, a senior education lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and member of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board, said school choice is an unsound policy because it robs bilingual and special-needs programs of necessary funds.

"Unless we start investing in education in this country, we don't have much of a future," he said.

Blewett said the voucher system sabotages public school funding at a time when emerging democracies like China are investing heavily in theirs.

Deborah McGriff, chair of the Black Alliance for Education Options, was the only panelist who refused to speak one way or the other regarding the voucher system. Instead, McGriff said parents deserve options in order to find a system that best educates their children.

"This is about quality schools," she said. "It is not about public schools, it is not about private schools, it is not about charter schools. It is in our best interest to seek schools that are of high quality, however the parents define that."