Change of Heart: How the 'Mother of School Choice' Came to Reject School Vouchers

In 1949, five domestic house cats were introduced to tiny Marion Island, which is off the coast of South Africa, in an effort to control the local mouse population. By 1977, the cat population had ballooned to 3,400, placing the local species of birds in danger of extinction.

It’s an old story: something that was intended to solve a problem instead creates a host of new ones.

Consider a parallel to private school vouchers. Like the cats on Marion Island, vouchers were intended to solve a problem: poor educational quality for some low-income students. Not only was that problem not solved, but a host of new ones have arisen; chiefly, the voucher scheme has morphed into a taxpayer bailout for unaccountable religious schools that play by their own rules.

It seems the former Wisconsin lawmaker who is credited as the “mother of school choice” in the United States was well aware of the problems spawned by vouchers, and by the end of her life had serious misgivings about the program she helped forge.

In a revelatory report that should give chills to “school choice” advocates everywhere, Political Research Associates fellow Rachel Tabachnik recently detailed how Polly Williams, a Democrat who worked with conservatives to bring Wisconsin’s voucher program to life in 1990, later regretted the direction vouchers took in the Badger State.

Williams, an African American who served in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1980-2010, originally thought vouchers could help minority children living in Milwaukee. So she reached across party lines to craft a limited voucher program that was only intended to assist low-income families in Milwaukee attending secular private schools. Thus, it was under this premise that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was born.

But as Tabachnik explained, the very people Williams saw as allies in her quest to improve education had nefarious intentions: They saw a limited voucher program as a gateway to a more extensive scheme that could achieve a long-sought goal of boosting private and religious education with taxpayer dollars.

Indeed, that’s what happened. A few years after the birth of Wisconsin’s voucher program, Williams had already been pushed aside by her one-time allies, even mocked and labeled “irrelevant.”

It’s not hard to figure how this happened. Tabachnik wrote that one of Williams’ partners on vouchers was the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, a group that describes itself as “committed to preserving and defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise….” The Bradley Foundation was a longtime backer of author Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve pushed the debunked concept that black people are intellectually inferior to whites. So instead of trying to help low-income minority students, the Bradley Foundation ended up lobbying to expand the MPCP to students attending religious schools.

As a result, by the 1998-99 school year, 70 percent of the students participating in the MPCP attended religious schools, Tabachnik said.  

But Williams didn’t take these developments lying down. In 2001, she admitted her increasing unhappiness regarding the path of the MPCP. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools,” she said at the time.

It seems Williams also didn’t approve of Gov. Scott Walker, who has become one of the most vocal voucher advocates in the United States. Speaking about Walker, Williams said in 2013: “They have hijacked the program.”

Sadly, some of Williams’ former allies openly admitted that she had been duped. George Mitchell, a top voucher advocate in Wisconsin, said he stopped working with Williams after the mid-1990s. “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation,” Mitchell said bluntly in 2013.

Today, Wisconsin’s voucher program has metastasized from one that was limited to Milwaukee and part of Racine County into a statewide program that grows by the year. And it seems most of the students served by the program aren’t the ones Williams set out to help. Last year, the Oshkosh Northwestern reported that out of 2,834 eligible students who applied for vouchers statewide, 75 percent already attended a private school.

Williams passed away in 2014. But even in death, her former allies betrayed her by hijacking her legacy for their own purposes. When Williams died, American Federation for Children Chairman Betsy DeVos (who is among the most wealthy and powerful voices in the “school choice” movement) wrote that “hundreds of thousands of children across the country who benefit from school choice” have Williams to thank.

Of course DeVos failed to mention that Williams had a change of heart. In reality, as Tabachnik noted in her story, “Williams’ alienation from the movement she helped birth offers a cautionary tale for those who believe that vouchers, tuition tax credits for private schools – or even quasi-public charter schools – may offer a magic bullet to equitable education for underserved urban children.”

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