Vouchers and the Fate of the Common School

George Madden
Publisher & Senior Editor

When the US Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case, it let stand the June 10, 1998, decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (Jackson v. Benson) which declared the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, (MPCP) to be constitutional. The likely result will be an increase in the popularity of vouchers plans and is likely to be an issue in state legislatures and the upcoming presidential election. In keeping with our interest in encouraging greater interaction between higher education and public school faculties, The Montana Professor wishes to inaugurate a dialogue in these pages on this issue and/or others such as charter school, tuition tax credits, etc. We welcome contributions from any of our readers. They may be in the form of letters to the editor, essays, commentaries, or research based articles. We will publish as many of them as possible.

How the Milwaukee Plan Works

MPCP is targeted at low-income parents who are not satisfied with the education their children are receiving in the "embattled" Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). For them the state will pay the lesser of the tuition in a private school or the amount that would have gone to the budget of the MPS for each student. To qualify parents must have an income less than 1.75 times the federal poverty level. The number of students participating in the program is not to exceed 15% of the enrollment of MPS. There is an "opt-out" provisions that prevents the sectarian school form requiring a student under this program to take part in any religious activity if the parents submit a written request. When the plan was first adopted in 1991, only non-sectarian schools were included. The amendments made in 1995 extended the plan to sectarian schools.

The Suit

The suit challenged the constitutionality of the MPCP under the US Constitution's First Amendment Establishment Clause and various provisions of the Wisconsin constitution and laws. Upon appeal, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the MPCP neither violated the US Constitution nor the Wisconsin constitution and laws. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Last December that court declined to hear the case and by so doing allowed the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to stand. Although the decision in binding only in the state of Wisconsin, it seems likely courts in other jurisdictions will follow the logic of the Wisconsin case at least until the US Supreme Court speaks directly to the issue.


In 1947 the US Supreme Court allowed a state to reimburse parents for the cost of transporting students to parochial as well as public schools (Everson v. Board of Education). It held the state's purpose was a secular one and only indirectly benefited the parochial school which meant it did not violate the constitution. However, the Wisconsin case is the first time the court has allowed a state to use tax dollars for the direct support of a parochial school at the expense of the public school. Therein lies the significance of this case.

Some Questions Raised

If, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court alleged, the Milwaukee Public Schools are "embattled," what about Montana public schools? Are they "embattled?" If so, what is to be done about that? If there are instances where academic standards fall short of what is appropriate, what can be done to improve them? Will an infusion of money to make teacher's salaries more competitive with other occupations be enough, or does there need to be a shift in the educational philosophy of public schools? If there are instances where the parents feel the school is hostile to religion, would educating teachers about religion make them more sensitive to religious differences so that such unnecessary perceptions are ended? To what extent and in what ways are our teacher education programs part of the problem? To what extent and in what ways can they become part of the solution? Will the Montana constitution prevent such a program in this state? If parental choice programs such as MPCP become widely accepted, will that mean the end of the often (though not always) fulfilled dream of the "common school" as a place where the nation truly becomes "E pluribus unum?"

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