The Trump administration has made school choice, vouchers in particular, a cornerstone of its education agenda. This has generated lots of interest in how school voucher programs across the country work and whom they benefit.
The oldest school voucher program was created in Milwaukee in 1990 with a singular focus on African-American students living in poverty. This school year, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program issued nearly 28,000 vouchers for low-income kids to attend dozens of private and religious schools at public expense.
Over the years, though, most voucher recipients have performed no better academically than their public school peers. In some cases they've done worse. So who exactly is benefiting? It's a question that has raised serious misgivings in Milwaukee's African-American community. So much so that some of the city's prominent black leaders today are divided.
Howard Fuller and Wendell J. Harris, in many ways, represent that split.
Harris is currently on the Milwaukee school board. As a member of the NAACP's education committee in Wisconsin, he was one of the original plaintiffs who sued the state in 1990 in a failed effort to block vouchers.
Fuller, a professor at Marquette University, is one of the architects of the voucher program. He's also a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national pro-voucher and school choice group.
Fuller's support for vouchers is pretty straight-forward. He says most of Milwaukee's African-American students are trapped in failing schools. These kids' parents, says Fuller, should have the right to choose a better school for their children because very little else that the African-American community has fought for has helped rescue poor black children in need of good schools.
"After (Brown vs. Board of Education)", says Fuller, "people thought that integration was going to lead to equal education for black kids. It didn't. Since then, there's a long history in Milwaukee to try and get poor black children educated."
People back then, Fuller adds, "didn't know just how far behind black children were, and there were administrators who didn't want that data to get out. Some said it would give fodder to racists who believed that black children could not learn."
Way before vouchers, Fuller says, black leaders in Milwaukee even proposed an all-black school district to address the specific needs of African-American children.
"People accused us of being racists, segregationists and on and on," says Fuller.
After that idea was shot down, a proposal to give vouchers to black families took root. Fuller joined Polly Williams, an African-American state legislator from Milwaukee and a Democrat, to push a school choice bill through the Wisconsin Legislature.
Fuller and Williams envisioned a small program that would encourage the community to create more private schools for black children. But in 1995, when the Wisconsin Legislature allowed religious schools to come into the voucher program, some leaders, including Williams, felt that white people who ran the city's private Catholic and Christian schools would take over the program.
"Which is exactly what happened," says Wendell Harris, who had led the opposition to vouchers in Milwaukee.
"My argument with Howard Fuller is that Catholic and Christian schools used this opening to, in essence, save their schools," says Harris. "If you set up a Christian academy and your main interest is to get a few hundred children to improve your [school finances] and you use Christianity as the draw, these schools have exploited persons' beliefs for their own private gain," Harris argues.
"In our community," adds Harris, "a lot of people believe that if they can get their kids into a safe place so they can pray every day, they may be able to save their child's life. Education is secondary."
Howard Fuller disagrees that voucher proponents "exploit" black families.
"I'm in this to empower parents," he says, "not to empower private or religious schools. I also didn't get in this for people who already have money to get more money to pay private school tuition."
But critics of vouchers say it's only a matter of time before conservative lawmakers seek to lift the income restrictions on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Vouchers, Fuller insists, absolutely need to target poor black children, period. He says that's why he was so puzzled when the NAACP late last year called for a moratorium on charter school expansion.
"There's thousands of black parents who are going to exercise the best option for their children and they don't care what the NAACP says," Fuller argues. "The hypocrisy in America is that so many of the black leaders and policymakers who are adamantly opposed to choice, use it for their own children."
But Harris, a prominent member of the NAACP in Milwaukee, says it's the political agenda of the school choice movement that many black leaders oppose.
"You've had this marketing effort to demonize public school teachers and public schools for the last 25 to 30 years," Harris says. "So black parents are convinced that public education is the problem."
I ask Harris, "What do you say to the grandmother who's raising five grandchildren and who says 'I don't want kids in Milwaukee public schools to fail, but I don't want my grandkids to fail either?' "
"I feel that lady's pain," Harris responds. "She wants a safe place for her children where they can get the education they need. But private and public schools don't play by the same rules."
Harris argues that public schools have to take all children, including those with learning disabilities and behavior problems. Private and religious schools aren't required to accept or retain them. And if they do, they're not required to disclose their expulsion and suspension rates.
"The issue of public money with no oversight, I have a problem with that," he says.
Fuller argues that the real issue here is parental choice, and in Milwaukee he says it's working for black families. I remind him that the data from Milwaukee's voucher program doesn't support his assertion that vouchers are benefiting students in terms of their academic performance.
Fuller doesn't dispute this but says test scores shouldn't be the only metric with which to gauge the success of vouchers.
"What I'm saying to you is that there are thousands of black children whose lives are much better today because of the Milwaukee parental choice program," he says. "They were able to access better schools than they would have without a voucher."
Wendell Harris isn't convinced, but concedes that vouchers are here to stay.
"We fought with everything we had" to stop vouchers, he says. "That battle is lost. What we have to do now is try and make this thing the best it can be to support our children." Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.