a review by Edd Doerr
Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, by Barbara J. Miner, The New Press, 2013.305 pp, $27.95.
In early May of 2013 the US Department of Justice announced, nearly two years after the complaint was filed, that Milwaukee private schools, mostly sectarian, funded by tax-paid vouchers to the tune of about $6400 per year per student, must not discriminate against students with disabilities. Only about 1.6% of students in Milwaukee's voucher-funded private schools are classified as having disabilities, compared to 20% in the public schools. In March of 2011 the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported that, despite their selectivity advantage, Milwaukee's voucher schools were significantly behind the public schools in math and reading. Milwaukee's vaunted school voucher plan, the oldest in the country, then, is an obvious flop, in addition to everything else that is wrong with it.
In this timely and extremely important book veteran Milwaukee journalist and native Barbara Miner traces the history of this pioneering experiment in diverting public funds to private, mostly religious, schools, from rather modest beginnings in 1990, through its expansion to religious schools in 1995, to today's Scott Walker fueled Wisconsin nightmare. She does this by presenting the whole fifty year background of the civil rights and desegregation movements -- touching on race, racism, demographic evolution, white flight, religion, politics, educational pseudo-reforms, court rulings, the influence of zillionaire conservative private foundations, enrollment statistics, and more -- providing a comprehensive picture of developments in Milwaukee, a sort of microcosm of major cities throughout the country.
Sadly, the Wisconsin supreme court approved this tax aid to religious schools in 1998 in defiance of the obvious intent of Article I, Section 18 of the state constitution and the US Supreme Court declined to accept an appeal, perhaps in anticipation of its own mistaken 2002 5-4 ruling to uphold Ohio's equally objectionable voucher plan.
Indiana and Louisiana followed Wisconsin's lead with even more ambitious and damaging voucher plans, as did Florida, though at least Florida voters were allowed to reject vouchers in a referendum in November of 2012. It is abundantly clear that when the voters in a state are allowed to pass on voucher, tax credit or similar plans they invariably reject them, as has happened in 27 statewide referenda from coast to coast. But voucher promoters will do anything to bar the voters from having their say.
Throughout the country conservatives and the religious right are fanatically bent on voucherizing and privatizing our public schools, which serve 90% of our kids, aided and abetted by school pseudo-reformers, fat cat conservative foundations and media, and public ignorance and apathy.
Barbara Miner's explosively important book should be a primary tool for defending public education, religious liberty, and democratic values.
(Edd Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty and author of "The Great School Voucher Fraud", available at arlinc.org.)