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CNN PRESENTS

Private Schools/Public Money

Aired June 29, 2002 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: A sharply divided Supreme Court weighs in on one of the fiercest battles in American education, school vouchers. In a 5-4 ruling that could have sweeping national consequences, the high court said that public money could be used to send children to private schools, both secular and religious. And the court's decision on Thursday not only cleared the way for voucher programs, but it also shifted the debate from legality to effectiveness. Do vouchers help kids, and are they best for the students?

CNN PRESENTS first went looking for answers to this debate two years ago in Milwaukee, home to the nation's oldest voucher program. And now, "Public Schools/Private Money," an encore presentation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is a revolution going on here. It's a revolution in terms of, people on the bottom are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Public schools need help and support, not abandonment. Part of what vouchers are about is saying, well, the public schools aren't working, vouchers are the answer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The church is not taking that money. That family has it and is giving it to us for their child's education.

JOHN GARDNER, MILWAUKEE SCHOOL BOARD: I like competition, but I also intend to win.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everyone have a seat and I'll pass it around, as -- while I see you working.

NARRATOR (voice-over): Eleven-year-old Anteria Wright is a 5th grader at Reilly Elementary on the south side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

ANTERIA WRIGHT, 5TH GRADER: I know my momma wants me to be a straight A student. I know that I can do it and I know that I will do it one day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's look at read the story and answer the question.

NARRATOR: Eleven-year-old Robert Smith is a 5th grader at Marva Collins Prep on the city's north side.

ROBERT SMITH, 5TH GRADER: When I grow up I'll be able to have an education, be able to get a good job, and might even own my own business.

And float it over to the workers who spill out of the gym.

NARRATOR: It may not look like it, but Robert and Anteria are on the front lines of the hottest battle in American education: vouchers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very, very good. Now, I want to see your work.

NARRATOR: While Anteria attends a public school, Robert receives a $5,000 voucher from the state to go to private school. Are vouchers the way to fix a system many say is broken?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, we can go ahead and do the losses now.

NARRATOR: Or is the cure worse than the disease?

Robert Smith begins his morning at around 5:00 a.m., red tie, white shirt, blue trousers, his uniform for the day. Robert's young life has hardly been typical. Until the age of 4, he had been bounced around from foster home to foster home. Now he's happy with his permanent address and his adoptive mother, 57-year-old Dorothy Smith.

Dorothy is a single mother of seven, but her biological children have all grown up and left the house. These are her adopted and foster children, Robert and six others, ages 6 through 11.

DOROTHY SMITH, ROBERT'S MOTHER: Someone has to try to make a difference in these children's life, because they need some stability, they need love. They're just like any of us, they just want somebody to say that they care.

R. SMITH: Captain, my captain, rise up and here the bills, rise up for your flag is strong, for you the beautiful trails.

D. SMITH: What about your spelling word?

You know them all?

NARRATOR: It was on a ride like this one three years ago that Dorothy heard a radio commercial about a brand new private school called Marva Collins Prep.

D. SMITH: I did a U-turn right in the middle of the street and went over to the school and got an application from Mr. Row (ph).

NARRATOR: Only with vouchers could she afford the tuition for Robert and two of his siblings, $5,300 a year for each of them.

D. SMITH: I had an opportunity to get them in the private school. I jumped at the choice and I have been very, very satisfied with the progress that they've made. They still have a long way to go, but they have come a long ways in three years.

R. SMITH: And what I propose is that you shall go to work tooth and nail for somebody who will give you money for it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, he's telling him to go to work. Continue reading for me, Martin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let father in your voice take charge.

NARRATOR: Over on the southside of town, it's a typical morning for 11-year-old Anteria Wright.

WRIGHT: I wake up, I put on my clothes, then I eat breakfast and then my mom -- sometimes she does my hair.

NARRATOR: For now, her mother, 29-year-old LaDonna Wright works on Anteria's younger sister, Dedriana (ph).

Everyone is running behind, and Cruz (ph), the oldest of LaDonna's three kids, is going back to school after a three-day suspension for being late to class.

LADONNA WRIGHT, ANTERIA WRIGHT'S MOTHER: Did you put some lotion on your face?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.

L. WRIGHT: Here, grab it right here.

And have a good day, please.

NARRATOR: Three years ago, LaDonna and her husband sent Anteria and Cruz to a private school that accepted vouchers. They pulled them out one year later because, they say, the kids had fallen behind their public school friends in almost every subject.

L. WRIGHT: I was disappointed, you know, and I was expecting more. I thought, oh, private school, you know, maybe this is the best thing. But then I went to private, put them in private, it wasn't what I thought it would be -- it should be.

NARRATOR: The Wrights are happy with Anteria's new public school, Reilly Elementary, a success story in an otherwise troubled system. With 100,000 students, the Milwaukee public school district is a big-city system long beset by big-city problems: poverty, poor discipline and violence.

A decade ago, when the voucher battle began, the dropout rate in the Milwaukee schools was among the highest in the country, the average GPA was a D-plus, and almost 20 percent of all high school students were suspended at least once during the year. The district had, by then, become more than 50 percent minority, and African- American parents in particular were clamoring for a way out for their children. Leading the charge was Annette (ph) Polly Williams.

STATE REP. POLLY WILLIAMS (D), MILWAUKEE: What I'm fighting for is that no matter what the color, what the income, all children deserve the best.

NARRATOR: In the early 1970s, Williams was a single parent on welfare, struggling to raise four children. Unhappy with the city's public schools, she scrimped, saved, and borrowed from friends and relatives to send all of her kids to private school.

WILLIAMS: I received help at a critical time in my life for my children. You know, if that support was not there, you know, I just wonder where would my children be now.

NARRATOR: For the last 20 years, Williams has represented Milwaukee's north side in the Wisconsin House of Representatives. In 1989, she began crusading for legislation she hoped would give her constituents the resources to do for their kids what she had done for hers.

WILLIAMS: We just said if the state was going to pay for the miseducation of children in the public schools, surely they would not object to paying a small portion to allow parents then to pick a school outside of the public schools.

NARRATOR: The money would be made available to low-income Milwaukee families in the form of checks from the state, called vouchers. Parents could apply these vouchers toward tuition at any Milwaukee private school that would accept them. The checks would be sent directly to the schools. All parents would have to do is come in and endorse them.

It was an idea that appealed to two groups usually on opposite sides of the fence, urban minorities and conservative Republicans.

WILLIAMS: If someone had told me I would ever form an alliance with conservatives, Republicans, and corporate America, I would say no way. And here I was in alliance with people who I have never had any dealings with before.

NARRATOR: Opponents said Williams, a Democrat, was being used to put a black face on a right-wing scheme to destroy public education, vouchers, they said, were simply a way of funneling public money to private schools. But with the support of Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, Williams held her coalition together. In March 1990, Thompson signed the bill into law, the Milwaukee parental choice program, the first in the nation to provide public vouchers for private schools was born.

In 10 years, it's grown to include 8,000 students and cost $40 million a year, but it's never stopped being controversial. The way the choice program is set up, it takes little more than a building permit to get a voucher school off the ground. If something goes wrong after that, the law makes it very difficult for the state to step in.

BARBARA MINER, JOURNALIST: It actually takes less to open a private school than to open a beauty salon, or a gas station, or a liquor store in Milwaukee. Not everyone who starts a school is really going to care about kids. They're going to care about the money behind that kid.

NARRATOR: The battle lines in the voucher debate are sharply drawn, but as a closer look at the Milwaukee experiment shows, the issues are anything but clear.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NARRATOR (voice-over): Every morning begins the same way for the students at Marva Collins Prep, with the recitation of the school's philosophy, known as "the creed." Today, Robert Smith leads his 5th grade classmates.

STUDENTS: This is my time and my place.

LAMONDA LEWIS, TEACHER, MARVA COLLINS PREP: Now will you please begin reading for me, Aria (ph).

NARRATOR: Robert's teacher is 29-year-old Lamonda Lewis. Ms. Lewis will be on her feet the rest of the day. She doesn't have a desk, the school's way of encouraging teachers to engage their students.

LEWIS: Yes, given the same amount, so he would make -- in total he would make how much? $400. Continue reading for me please, Ashley (ph).

NARRATOR: Lewis is in her first year at Marva Collins, her son is a 1st grader here.

LEWIS: I personally like the Marva Collins philosophy, which is all children can learn, and I truly feel that the philosophy equips the children with the knowledge that they need.

LEWIS: We can get along.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We get along very well, it's that he might keep asking the same person to give him something.

LEWIS: Is that what that would lead you to believe? Let's think about this now.

NARRATOR: Marva Collins is located on Milwaukee's north side, where unemployment is high, and the streets can be dangerous for a young kid. But the problems of the neighborhood seem to stay out of the classroom. According to the school's principal, students who start at Marva Collins score well above average on standardized tests.

LEWIS: Give me help out on that one. Yes, good. You're not slacking by no means. Go ahead, Ashley.

NARRATOR: Marva Collins wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Milwaukee parental choice program. This year, the school received nearly a million dollars from the state, almost 200 of its 224 students use vouchers to pay their tuition. Sometimes it must seem that most of those students belong to Robert's adoptive mother, Dorothy Smith.

D. SMITH: I have probably more kids here than anyone else because I have, you know, several grandchildren and plus my adopted children, you know, and I have, you know, foster childrens here.

NARRATOR: This morning like most other mornings, you can find Ms. Dorothy, as the kids call her, volunteering in the school's cafeteria. She's more than happy to give something back to a school, she believes, has offered her kids' possibilities the public schools couldn't provide.

D. SMITH: It has been very important to me because of -- Robert is determined to go to college. Tasha (ph) and Eddie (ph) even both talk about going to college. You know, and with Marva Collins, you know, what they learn at Marva Collins and their background, they can almost go to any school that they want to.

LEWIS: OK, I see the word up there "hedonist." Who can tell me what a hedonist is?

NARRATOR: Robert struggled in the Milwaukee public school he attended before Marva Collins.

LEWIS: What is it, John?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mrs. Lewis, the underlined words mean...

D. SMITH: I got the impression they didn't think that he was -- he would be able to excel.

LEWIS: This man has killed his own brother and taken his wife. Now, tell me some other things about Hamlet. What took place after that?

NARRATOR: Since coming to Marva Collins two years ago, Robert's performance has improved dramatically. He's even started tutoring classmates in his favorite subject, math.

R. SMITH: So far since I've started school, I hadn't got no grade under a C, I get either an A, B, or C.

NARRATOR: Robert's success as a voucher student is a challenge to the Milwaukee public schools, or MPS; a challenge Milwaukee school board member John Gardner welcomed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We should start telling what -- you mean, we have to go somewhere else to find out what's going on?

GARDNER: If you have a question or an answer I can talk with you. If you have your own position made up and you're speaking nonsense, please continue to vote for the other guy.

NARRATOR: Gardner, who has sent all three of his children to Milwaukee public schools, has made plenty of enemies in his five years on the board. It's no coincidence that he's also helped oversee sweeping changes in the way the district does business, from adding hundreds of preschool and after-school programs, to giving the schools the authority to hire and fire teachers.

GARDNER: Just gotten a lot of communications from math departments and principals about how, their judgment, this is an extravagant waste of money.

I like competition, but I also intend to win. Milwaukee public schools is going to be the best governmental urban school system in this country.

NARRATOR: Gardner believes public schools need private schools. Vouchers, he claims, have helped shake up a system that only graduates half of its students and leaves many of those unemployable.

GARDNER: The people who took money from MPS to wherever they are going are parents. And I think parents have the right and have the responsibility, actually, to take their tax money and take it to where they believe their children are going to get the best education.

NARRATOR: Voucher opponents don't buy that. They say that injecting competition into public education corrupts a system meant to serve everyone.

MINER: You're inherently buying into a system where you're saying, we know there's going to be winners in this system and we know there's going to be losers, and we're justifying it because that's competition.

CASSANDRA MCWILLIAMS, TEACHER: Everyone take out your morning work. You should have pages and seven and eight out.

NARRATOR: One Milwaukee public school that has taken the competition to heart is Riley Elementary.

MCWILLIAMS: This was the one where you had to show the singular possessive using apostrophe-s or the plural possessive using s- apostrophe or just a plain s.

NARRATOR: Fifth grader Anteria Wright 5th would much rather be at pom-pom practice than in Ms. McWilliams class studying grammar. But she's happier at Riley than she was at the voucher school she attended previously, and her performance reflects that.

A. WRIGHT: I was below my reading level when I came into this school, now I'm above. When my mamma came to conference, she was proud of me because my last report card was kind of bad and this report card was good. And she was proud of me and she was proud of my teacher that she was helping me do better in my reading and my math and my writing.

MCWILLIAMS: I don't want them to think they're going to slide by, because once they leave here it only gets harder. And they need to be prepared for it. And that's my goal for them each day. Do what I give you. If you don't understand, you need to let me know.

NARRATOR: A rookie teacher, McWilliams stepped into a school that already had a reputation for solid academic achievement.

Studies show that income level is usually the best predictor of a school's performance. But at Riley, most students read above their grade level, even though 90 percent are poor enough to qualify for federally funded free lunches.

JIM NOVAK, PRINCIPAL: How are you doing? No, don't do that. Hustle, let's go. All right, all right, all right. That's right. What's up?

Principal Jim Novak uses competition with the voucher-funded schools as a benchmark for his own.

NOVAK: I've been told that we seem to be a public school with a private school attitude or approach as it relates to parents, as it relates to children, as it relates to the community.

NARRATOR: Because his budget depends on the school's enrollment, Novak has had to be responsive to the changing demographics, of Milwaukee's south side. Taquerias and mercados line the streets of what was once a Polish immigrant neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I said a boom, chickarocka, chickarocka, chickaboom.

NARRATOR: Hispanic children now make up about half of Riley's 725 students, so the school has added English immersion and bilingual classes.

While the voucher school, Marva Collins, has few computers, technology is central to Riley's curriculum. Every child learns computer skills, and most of the classrooms are hooked up to the Internet.

Novak is a salesman for his school, a politician as well as a principal.

NOVAK: OK, it looks like the sun is popping out, and I think all of those prayers that we asked for have been answered. So let's see if we can take the next few minutes to get ourselves ready, and it sounds like -- it looks like we're going to have a great parade. All right, on time, on task and on a mission.

NARRATOR: Today, Novak will be leading his students in a parade around the school in honor of the Week of the Young Child. It's become an annual ritual at Riley, a chance to attract neighborhood parents to the school and, of course, local politicians.

NOVAK: Our mayor has been here on a number occasions, the superintendent. So they're taking interest in the school, and we really appreciate that.

Yes, parents are choosing to send their children to Riley. They are sending their children to Riley because we are working hard to meet those needs, not only of the parent but of the child.

NARRATOR: The tale of these two schools, Riley Elementary and Marva Collins Prep, seems to make the case that vouchers have done what they're supposed to: give poor families access to private schools and force the public schools to improve.

But there's more to the story than that: scandals, school closings and cracks in the walls separating church and state.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

D. SMITH: Look here and find a word that means complete -- one, two, three, four. You have not read for an hour. You know the routine.

NARRATOR (voice-over): The people who took money from MPS to wherever they are going are parents. And I think parents have the right and have the responsibility, actually, to take their tax money and take it to where they believe their children are going to get the best education.

NARRATOR: Voucher opponents don't buy that. They say that injecting competition into public education corrupts a system meant to serve everyone.

MINER: You're inherently buying into a system where you're saying, we know there's going to be winners in this system and we know there's going to be losers, and we're justifying it because that's competition.

CASSANDRA MCWILLIAMS, TEACHER: Everyone take out your morning work. You should have pages and seven and eight out.

NARRATOR: One Milwaukee public school that has taken the competition to heart is Riley Elementary.

MCWILLIAMS: This was the one where you had to show the singular possessive using apostrophe-s or the plural possessive using s- apostrophe or just a plain s.

NARRATOR: Fifth grader Anteria Wright 5th would much rather be at pom-pom practice than in Ms. McWilliams class studying grammar. But she's happier at Riley than she was at the voucher school she attended previously, and her performance reflects that.

A. WRIGHT: I was below my reading level when I came into this school, now I'm above. When my mamma came to conference, she was proud of me because my last report card was kind of bad and this report card was good. And she was proud of me and she was proud of my teacher that she was helping me do better in my reading and my math and my writing. MCWILLIAMS: I don't want them to think they're going to slide by, because once they leave here it only gets harder. And they need to be prepared for it. And that's my goal for them each day. Do what I give you. If you don't understand, you need to let me know.

NARRATOR: A rookie teacher, McWilliams stepped into a school that already had a reputation for solid academic achievement.

Studies show that income level is usually the best predictor of a school's performance. But at Riley, most students read above their grade level, even though 90 percent are poor enough to qualify for federally funded free lunches.

JIM NOVAK, PRINCIPAL: How are you doing? No, don't do that. Hustle, let's go. All right, all right, all right. That's right. What's up?

Principal Jim Novak uses competition with the voucher-funded schools as a benchmark for his own.

NOVAK: I've been told that we seem to be a public school with a private school attitude or approach as it relates to parents, as it relates to children, as it relates to the community.

NARRATOR: Because his budget depends on the school's enrollment, Novak has had to be responsive to the changing demographics, of Milwaukee's south side. Taquerias and mercados line the streets of what was once a Polish immigrant neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I said a boom, chickarocka, chickarocka, chickaboom.

NARRATOR: Hispanic children now make up about half of Riley's 725 students, so the school has added English immersion and bilingual classes.

While the voucher school, Marva Collins, has few computers, technology is central to Riley's curriculum. Every child learns computer skills, and most of the classrooms are hooked up to the Internet.

Novak is a salesman for his school, a politician as well as a principal.

NOVAK: OK, it looks like the sun is popping out, and I think all of those prayers that we asked for have been answered. So let's see if we can take the next few minutes to get ourselves ready, and it sounds like -- it looks like we're going to have a great parade. All right, on time, on task and on a mission.

NARRATOR: Today, Novak will be leading his students in a parade around the school in honor of the Week of the Young Child. It's become an annual ritual at Riley, a chance to attract neighborhood parents to the school and, of course, local politicians.

NOVAK: Our mayor has been here on a number occasions, the superintendent. So they're taking interest in the school, and we really appreciate that.

Yes, parents are choosing to send their children to Riley. They are sending their children to Riley because we are working hard to meet those needs, not only of the parent but of the child.

NARRATOR: The tale of these two schools, Riley Elementary and Marva Collins Prep, seems to make the case that vouchers have done what they're supposed to: give poor families access to private schools and force the public schools to improve.

But there's more to the story than that: scandals, school closings and cracks in the walls separating church and state.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SMITH: Look here and find a word that means complete -- one, two, three, four. You have not read for an hour. You know the routine.

NARRATOR (voice-over): Homework always come before dinner time at the Smith house. Dorothy Smith requires all of her children to read for at least an hour every night. Eleven-year-old Robert and three of his other siblings are voucher students at Marva Collins Prep. Eventually, Dorothy would like to send all seven of her kids there. She's a familiar face around the school and sometimes even sits in on Robert's classes.

D. SMITH: If I'm there, they know that I'm concerned. If there's a problem with the kids, they know that they can get me right there and I can nip it in the bud.

NARRATOR: In the educational marketplace vouchers are supposed to create, the schools are the businesses and the parents are the customers.

If they don't like what they're getting, they'll take their money somewhere else -- or so the theory goes.

All too often, say opponents of vouchers, there's no way for even the most involved of parents to know what they're getting until it's too late.

Barbara Miner, the mother of two children in the Milwaukee public schools, believes lack of accountability is the biggest problem with the voucher program. Miner has been a critic of vouchers since 1990, when she went to cover a controversy at a choice school for one of Milwaukee's daily newspapers.

MINER: So I show up, my pen in hand, I'm going to find out what's going on and report it. And this attorney sort of stops me and, you know, bigger guy than I, which is not hard, and says, well you can't go in there. I said, well what do you mean? I'm with "The Milwaukee Journal," and this is a -- you know, they're getting public dollars and this is a voucher school and there's a controversy here. I want to report on it. He said, no you're not. This is a private school.

NARRATOR: A series of scandals and school closings has kept the oversight issues in the headlines.

In 1996, two choice schools shut down within weeks of each other after it was found that they had falsified records and overbilled the state. The CEO of another choice school turned out to be a convicted rapist.

In some years, the failure rate for new voucher schools has been as high as 25 percent, leaving students, parents and teachers in the lurch.

MINER: That's one reason they're called private is that there isn't a lot of public oversight. It's like private parks, private country clubs. You're not responsible to the public.

NARRATOR: Three years ago, LaDonna Wright pulled her son Cruz (ph) out of a private school that participated in the choice program.

L. WRIGHT: That's cute.

NARRATOR: Disciplined at the school had collapsed, she says, and she didn't think Cruz was learning enough.

L. WRIGHT: Something about it didn't feel like. You know how you have that feeling. But I was working, and I wasn't able to, you know, take off like I wanted to. So one day, I was able to take off, you know? And I just popped up. And the things that I seen was just horrible. It was like the kids was calling the shots.

NARRATOR: Back at Marva Collins Prep, Ms. Lewis is leading Robert's class in today's phonics lesson.

LEWIS: OK, who can tell me a word up here where A-blank-E (ph) says A?

NARRATOR: In Ms. Lewis's class, you'll see students learning phonics, grammar, math and reading.

LEWIS: Annihilate is one of them. And what does annihilate mean? Who can tell me what annihilate is? Yes, Justin? To destroy.

NARRATOR: One thing you won't see, though, is science. While is required in the public schools, it isn't taught to all students at Marva Collins. In fact, the school is free from many state mandates, even though most of its students pay tuition with taxpayer dollars.

Private schools participating in the choice program don't have to hire certified teachers, follow curriculum guidelines, release test scores or even reveal how their funds are being spent.

The performance of public schools, like Riley Elementary on the other hand, is carefully measured by assortment of standardized tests.

Fifth grader Anteria Wright isn't so happy about having to take the latest round.

A. WRIGHT: Last week I had to take a writing test. This week I took a science test, and tomorrow I'm taking a social studies and reading test. So I think it's too many tests you have to take just to go to sixth grade.

MINER: But the private schools, because there's such little accountability, no one really knows -- are these kids doing better than they did in MPS? No one has a clue.

NARRATOR: But voucher advocate Paulie Williams argues that all that accountability hasn't done much to help the Milwaukee schools.

WILLIAMS: Well, if rules had any connection to education, then public schools ought to be the best institutions in the country, right? Because they have all these rules and regulations, all these teacher requirement, all these certification needs, all these qualified teachers, yet the children can't read.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, welcome to the Marva Collins school. We're excited to have you here tonight.

NARRATOR: This evening, Marva Collins is holding its first talent show. Any student can perform, and many do. Robert Smith is a little too shy and a little too late to get on stage this time.

The show is a chance for Marva Collins families to get together and celebrate their 3-year-old voucher school. They're celebrating something else, as well: the African-American heritage of almost all of the school's students. Many, like Robert's fifth-grade teacher, LaMonda Lewis, view this kind of segregation as acceptable, as long as it's voluntary.

LEWIS: African-Americans who have children send their children here. And every parent is looking for an educational facility that they can trust to leave their child. But we welcome any child and would be happy to educate any child.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get ready.

CHILDREN: Something.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I need everybody. Get ready.

CHILDREN: Something.

NARRATOR: You won't see many one-race schools in the Milwaukee public school district. The mosaic of faces in this kindergarten class at Riley Elementary is the result of a quarter century of busing.

Opponents of vouchers say the choice program amounts to using taxpayer money to resegregate the schools. Race isn't the only factor they're concerned about. Private schools are allowed to accept as few or as many voucher students as they want, so long as they do it at random.

But critics believe voucher school are cherry-picking students, finding ways of attracting the applicants they want, and steering away the ones they don't.

JAMES HALL, ATTORNEY, NAACP MILWAUKEE: The public schools have to educate everyone. Milwaukee public schools educates students with physical disabilities, with learning disabilities. If we allow a system to prevail which allows resources to be directed toward educating the few as opposed to everyone, we think it will result in a very different America than we've had.

WILLIAMS: The bottom line is that we are supposed to educate children. If they are not being educated in a system, why do we keep pouring money in a system that is not doing the job?

NARRATOR: When the voucher program was small, criticism of it remained muted. But in recent years, the stakes have been raised, more money, more students and most controversial of all, the use of vouchers for religious education.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NARRATOR (voice-over): For much of the 20th century, a solid wall has existed in America between religion and public education.

STEPHANIE PICADO, STUDENT: What is the test about?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Everything in the geometry notebook.

NARRATOR: With a push from vouchers, that wall has started to crumble in Milwaukee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do I like you to do on your essays?

NARRATOR: Sixteen-year-old Stephanie Picado is a junior here at St. Joan, an all-girls Catholic high school near downtown. Stephanie's family moved to Milwaukee from Costa Rica five years ago.

PICADO: Costa Rica is my birth home. That's the home that I'll never let go. But my dad decided he wanted to give us a better opportunity, a better life. So we just sold everything we had, we just came here.

NARRATOR: Today, Stephanie is giving an oral report in Judy Gillespie's theology class.

PICADO: The church is for everybody, no matter what distinction or race or culture that you come from. NARRATOR: As part of the assignment, the students have been asked to relate the material they've covered to their own lives, in particular to any conversion experiences they might have had.

PICADO: So when I came here, I'm, like, kind of turned my life around when I see what this country or this world has to give me. So I took the opportunity, advantage of it, and that's what I'm doing now.

NARRATOR: It's not an unusual discussion for a Catholic school class.

GILLESPIE: Stephanie, when you watched Romero, did you see God?

PICADO: Sure.

GILLESPIE: How did you see God?

PICADO: I see God in the poor people.

NARRATOR: What makes it unusual is that Stephanie's participation is being subsidized by the taxpayers of Wisconsin.

SISTER MONICA FUMA, PRINCIPAL, ST. JOAN ANTIDA HIGH: I don't think about church state so much. It's, here's a parent, this is where they'd like their daughter, and they can give -- sign that voucher over to this place.

NARRATOR: It's all part of a controversial expansion of the choice program that has dramatically enlarged the scope and the stakes of the voucher battle.

In 1995, with the help of Governor Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin's Republican-controlled state legislature voted to open the voucher program to religious education. For the first time anywhere in America, a state had sanctioned the use of public funds to pay for students to attend religious schools.

Voucher opponents immediately launched a court challenge, delaying implementation of the law.

The constitutional issue for the court is whether the state of Wisconsin can use state funds to pay for that religious education.

NARRATOR: In 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the program did not violate the First Amendment, because the state was technically giving the families the vouchers, not the school. That November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, in effect allowing the law to stand.

What had started out as a relatively small program suddenly exploded. In the last two years, the number of voucher students has quintupled, from 1,500 to 8,000. Sixty-three of the 91 schools now participating in the program have a religious affiliation. Most are Catholic.

Stephanie Picado began attending St. Joan as a choice student in September of 1998.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who is that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That boy right there?

GILLESPIE: What is the story of Cain and Abel?

NARRATOR: The Wisconsin school voucher law allows choice students to opt out of religious instruction, but the reality is that few do.

Judy Gillespie has been teaching at St. Joan for five years. She believes the theology taught at the school offers useful lessons for students of all faiths.

GILLESPIE: In a lot of ways, in a Catholic high school it is about Scripture. And it needs to be about Scripture. It is a vehicle by which we are able to talk about what divides us, whether it be prejudice or poverty or whatever it might be.

CHRIS AMHUTY, WISCONSIN ACLU: You're draining resources away from MPS.

NARRATOR: Chris Amhuty, executive director of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, says his organization sees the matter very differently.

AMHUTY: The ACLU has nothing against parents and churches and synagogues and mosques having schools that further their religious values. That's fine. The question is whether or not taxpayers should be putting the bill for that.

FUMO: Defusing the argument of, my tax money is going to the Catholic Church, the church is not taking that money. That family has it and is giving it to us for their child's education.

NARRATOR: For the last six years, St. Joan has held an annual event celebrating the school's diverse student body.

PICADO: So when you're, like, in a Catholic all-girls school, it's kind of like we are one big, different family in this school. You know everybody.

NARRATOR: Voucher proponents argue that parochial schools have a long, proud history of teaching children from poor, immigrant families like Stephanie's. At St. Joan, 80 percent of the school's graduates go on to college. Stephanie's mother, Lillian Batista, is happy enough with the school to want to send her second daughter, 14- year-old Katherine, next year.

LILLIAN BATISTA, MOTHER (through translator): Without choice, we would have to ask, what is just? Is it just that a student that wants to study and wants to learn can't go to school, doesn't have the right to a good school because parents don't have the money to pay?

NARRATOR: This year, almost a third of St. Joan's 390 girls are voucher students. Each voucher brings St. Joan $1,800 more than the school charges for tuition. Such a disparity, critics say, is proof that the program is propping up parochial schools that would be struggling without it.

But Sister Monica Fumo says the church isn't making money from voucher students, it's just losing less than it otherwise would.

FUMO: The Catholic Church is not going to be subsidizing this money. It really is not extra money, it's just closer to what it really takes us in 180 school days to run the school.

NARRATOR: Back at home, Stephanie Picado has more pressing things to worry about than the fate of the First Amendment.

PICADO: My parents look at me as something that I couldn't be because they didn't get much opportunity and education. So if I fail, I fail to my parents, I fail to my brothers, to my family, and to my -- really, to the person that have their trust on me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NARRATOR (voice-over): It's 3:30, and much of the fifth grade class at Marva Collins Prep has gone home. But 11-year-old Robert Smith is still around.

R. SMITH: Fractions...

NARRATOR: Robert is part of the Math Buddies program.

SMITH: Thirty-two go into 108 how many times?

NARRATOR: Three times a week, he stays late to help classmates with their homework.

Robert wants to be an engineer when he grows up. His teacher, Lamonda Lewis, says growing up is something Robert's done a lot of this year.

LEWIS: When I first became his teacher, he was in the habit of pouting, whining and he knows that Mrs. Lewis does not condone that. He's matured is what I'm saying. He's matured academically, and I see him evolving into a true scholar.

NARRATOR: Across town at Riley Elementary, a Milwaukee public school, math lessons are just ending.

MCWILLIAMS: It's 3:30 -- it's 3:35 and I can't even get you dismissed because you're losing control.

NARRATOR: After a long day, Cassandra McWilliams' fifth graders are ready for final bell, and Anteria Wright has plans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You should....

NARRATOR: Today, Riley's fifth grade girls' basketball team is playing for the city championship.

TEAM CHEER: One, two, three, get it together.

CHEERLEADERS: Riley, Riley, go Riley.

NARRATOR: Leading the cheers is Anteria's pom-pom squad.

Anteria's dream is to become a singer. Her teacher says she's come a long way from the shy girl that started the school year.

MCWILLIAMS: In the beginning she was really quiet, kind of set back and watched, she didn't say much. But now her confidence level has risen a lot, being part of different things in the school, like pom-poms. She's opening up and she's blossoming.

NARRATOR: Anteria has thrived in a public school, Robert in a private, voucher school.

WILLIAMS: And so you want me -- you're going to get a call. You're calling him now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, I'm calling him now, trying to get the...

NARRATOR: For the mother of the Milwaukee voucher program, State Representative Polly Williams, the purpose has always been to provide that choice.

WILLIAMS: The bottom line for me, is education and opportunities for our parent. I don't really care where those opportunities come from, just so it's there, so parents can get their children educated.

NARRATOR: Ironically, a decade after vouchers began, Williams now finds herself fighting efforts to expand the program. Her one time allies are pushing to raise the income limits, that restrict vouchers to poor families in Milwaukee. In 1999, this meant a family of four, making less than $29,000 a year.

They say the program has been such a success that middle-class families should be given access to it as well. Williams argues that this would defeat purpose of vouchers.

WILLIAMS: Other forces is trying to take the program and steer it away from the target population. We could never, ever accommodate all the low-income families that we need to have. I do not want to see upper-income or affluent families in this choice program, because the program was designed for a specific population and I want it to remain there.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Ms. Lewis.

NARRATOR: After 10 years, the jury is still out on Milwaukee's voucher experiment. Academic studies of the program's impact on student achievement have been inconclusive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's going to be helping him with his reading if possible and also, maybe some history and science.

LEWIS: OK, those are positive things. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is always an in asset. What about for the summer?

NARRATOR: At the same time, surveys indicate that voucher parents, like Robert's mother Dorothy Smith, are on the whole more satisfied with their children's education.

GARDNER: One of the things that public education has traditionally done in this country, is provide at least a hopeful glimmer of the way out of situations that are pretty rough for kids. And the schools are no longer doing that. They have become more prisons, than escalators.

FUMO: It's a really fair way for people who really don't have a lot of choices, financially speaking. There are a lot of poor people in this city. And we believe they should have a choice.

MINER: Whether it's on accountability, whether it's one church- state, whether it's dividing systems into haves and have-not. I think vouchers are bad public policy.

NARRATOR: The fate of vouchers may well be decided in Washington, perhaps by the Supreme Court or the next president.

But for now, the future's being played out here in Milwaukee in families like these, one student at a time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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