It is dangerous to be on the knife edge of the school-choice movement.

Just ask Bob Smith, principal of Messmer High School in Milwaukee. As he finished back-to-school preparations in August, he expected Wisconsin’s newly expanded voucher program to finance most of the tuition for 30 of his 320 students at the Catholic school.

Smith had no intention of telling the 30 children they could no longer come to his school. “We’re going on faith here,” Smith said, as he covered the phones during lunch hour in the school’s utilitarian office. “We’re telling parents, ‘Your kid is guaranteed a place here.’ If the vouchers get hung up, we’ll rely on our alumni, businesses, and foundations to support us.”

Wisconsin’s five-year-old pilot voucher program, which promised to pay up to $3,600 toward tuition for low-income students, was to be expanded to a capacity of 7,000 students and more than 100 schools this fall, including Messmer, and then boosted again in 1997 to a ceiling of 15,000 students.

But just a few days before school opened August 30, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended the choice program because of its expansion to religious schools such as Messmer. The court decided to revert to last year’s rules governing vouchers—at least until jurists could reconsider the issue this month.

That meant that much of the tuition for hundreds of children who had been enrolled at dozens of newly voucher-eligible private schools, including Messmer, suddenly did not exist.

Private donors did, in fact, come through. The Bradley Foundation, a major choice backer nationwide, stepped up with a $1 million gift to Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), the local, privately funded voucher program for poor children that launched an emergency tuition-covering ...

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