The Magazine

Showdown at the Voucher Corral

A high-stakes school board election in Milwaukee.

Mar 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 27 • By ELI LEHRER
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MILWAUKEE SCHOOL BOARD member John Gardner has a deep voice, a short temper, plenty of enemies, and left-leaning political views. He also has a bevy of support from nationally prominent conservatives and is fighting a broad spectrum of left-wing forces that want to end his political career.

First elected as an at-large member to the board governing America's 12th largest urban school district in 1995, Gardner, a union organizer by profession, made a name for himself with outspoken (sometimes outrageous) rhetoric and passionate support for Milwaukee's ambitious school-choice experiments. He's always run on a nine-word platform: "Parents Choose Schools. Money Follows Students. Schools Make Decisions."

Thanks in large part to Gardner and his political allies, Milwaukee's parents have more options than those in any other large urban school district: Of 105,000 students in the district nearly 15,000 get publicly funded vouchers to attend private and religious schools, while a roughly equal number attend scores of new charter schools that have sprouted all over the lakeside city.

This reform era, however, may draw to a close with the April 1 election--the school-choice faction Gardner represents holds a 5-4 edge, but his reelection is in doubt. "John Gardner was the moral and intellectual heart of the school-choice movement in Milwaukee," says former Bradley Foundation president Michael Joyce, who devoted the foundation's resources to funding a large-scale Milwaukee voucher experiment in the early 1990s. "He's made real enemies from the teachers' union groups who regard him as, well, dangerous."

When he last ran for reelection in 1999, teachers' unions, People for the American Way (of which Gardner is a longtime member), and a host of other nationally organized leftist groups spent about $1 million to defeat him; very likely the most ever spent for a local school board race. They may surpass that amount this time. Gardner's opponent in the April 1 election--former high school principal Tom Balistreri--plans to run about a quarter-million dollars of television ads, Gardner says. Gardner has no money for television and has raised only a little more than he had at this time in 1999, when he and allied groups spent slightly under $200,000. In the February primary for the nonpartisan board, Balistreri beat Gardner by almost 1,000 votes out of 25,000 cast with about 2,000 going to a minister who has since endorsed Balistreri.

Whatever happens, Gardner will have a significant legacy. When he first became involved in city politics in the early 1990s, everyone agreed that Milwaukee's schools needed some sort of drastic change: Test scores were among the lowest in the nation while dropout rates (over 60 percent) ranked among the highest. Thanks to Gardner, the Bradley Foundation, and Democratic mayor John O. Norquist, Milwaukee launched an ambitious choice experiment to remedy this situation. Since reform began in earnest in 1994, mixed but mostly positive academic outcomes have emerged: Reading and language scores have risen significantly and dropout rates have fallen (although they remain abysmally high). More distressingly for diehard voucher opponents, Milwaukee's voucher program appears to have put to rest the idea that choice destroys public schools--the school district's enrollment has actually grown slightly and inflation-adjusted per-student spending has risen about a quarter.

But not all the news is good: Math scores in the public schools have risen slightly less than those elsewhere in the nation, 60 percent of African-American males fail to graduate from high school in four years, and improved parental choice has brought the greatest benefits to well-informed middle-class parents. "Milwaukee Public Schools is a great system if you're willing to get involved," says Rick Marino, a staunch Gardner supporter who has two children in Milwaukee charter schools. "But if you are not, your kids just get dumped in some central area." Still, efforts to undo the reforms have little popular support.

The lack of grass-roots opposition to the voucher plan may make the left most nervous. "This race shows that local school boards really matter to those who support school choice," says Ralph Benko, a Washington political consultant and longtime parent rights activist who serves as an adviser to Gardner's campaign. "Activists can gain a lot if they work hard to take them over." Stephen Moore, who heads the Club for Growth, says that the free-market group has never supported any candidate nearly as left-wing as Gardner. "They may be particularly afraid of him because he's a convert away from their cause."