John Norquist discusses urban schools at Brady Street Forum

By - Apr 20th, 2012 04:00 am
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John Norquist spoke at the Tamarack Waldorf School on the corner of Brady and Humboldt (Photos: Holly Nearman)

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist spoke about the future of urban school systems in Milwaukee and across the country at the Brady Street Area Association’s Spring Forum on Tuesday, April 17, at Tamarack Waldorf School. Norquist highlighted the importance of quality schools in adding to a city’s value, an issue that was central to his mayoral career.

“What makes people want to live in the city? That’s the way I always look at things,” said Norquist, now president and CEO of the Chicago-based organization, Congress for the New Urbanism. He believes a city’s success hinges on a combination of elements—safe, walkable neighborhoods, great transit systems, and access to quality schools.

“[Milwaukee] has all kinds of advantages,” said Norquist, pointing to its rich history, its proximity to Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, and its diverse population and culture. “But it gets undermined when you take the basic package that people want—where they’re going to live—and ruin it. And you can ruin it in a lot of ways.”

Norquist noticed a glaring trend that plagued the city—families migrating to the suburbs, shopping for the best school districts once their children reached school age. While it was problematic for residents to leave a city they loved, the real tragedy was for the families in Milwaukee without the economic resources to relocate, said Norquist.

He enthusiastically supported the implementation of the controversial Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1990, the first urban school voucher program in the country, which gave low-income families the chance to send their children to their pick of participating schools in the city through taxpayer-funded vouchers. Even parents with “terrible flaws” will choose the best school for their child when they are given the option, says Norquist.

Norquist witnessed the opportunities it gave disadvantaged children firsthand. His son was enrolled at Tamarack Waldorf School, a participant in MPCP, and had many classmates in the choice program.

While the voucher system in Milwaukee is a rarity in the country, the United States is one of just a handful of industrial nations that does not have universal school choice, said Norquist, adding that America is the only country in the world that has a monopolized system in which all of the money is funneled to government-owned schools.

“School choice is not so strange if you look around the world,” said Norquist, referencing successful universal school choice systems in Canada and Western European countries where the governments provide vouchers to students for public, private, and religious schools. Unlike many metropolitan areas in the United States, the best schools in these countries are found in the cities.

“No one in Toronto says they want to live in Mississauga—which is sort of the equivalent of New Berlin in the Toronto area—just because they have kids,” said Norquist.

Norquist cites a lack of quality choices of K-12 schools as a key problem in education for many cities in the United States, contrasting with the abundance of nearly every other service found in the same cities.

Norquist looked at higher education in Milwaukee as an example.“Public, private, parochial. They’re all there. They’re all eligible for the GI Bill.  They’re all eligible for Pell grants. And they’re concentrated in the city,” he said. “But then you get into K-12 education and the money was just flowing through the public schools and nowhere else.”

Having a “one-size-fits-all system” of education does not create a place where parents feel like there is an advantage to living in the city, said Norquist. He promoted a more widespread system where families would be more inclined to live in racially and economically diverse communities within a city.

Governor Walker recently expanded MPCP by removing the caps on enrollment and opening the field of choice schools to all schools within Milwaukee County. New provisions also increased the income limit from 175 percent to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, while allowing enrolled families to stay in the program if their income increases beyond those limits.

Norquist suggests further expansion of the program in order to reap the benefits and prevent flight to the suburbs. If the program is implemented correctly and eliminates the income limits and allows everyone to participate, he says Milwaukee “will become the best place in the entire state of Wisconsin for K-12 education.”

While opponents of school choice worry that the program will cripple the public school system, which in Wisconsin’s case is already facing an $834 million cut in state funding over the next two years, Norquist says the program increases the quality of public schools. Rather than pitting public schools against private schools, school choice shifts the focus from the systems to individual schools and puts the decision of a child’s education where it belongs—in the hands of parents, said Norquist.

“What [opponents] ought to do is figure out how to organize [schools] instead of blocking children from getting an education that they and their parents want to have,” he said, but remains optimistic about the city and its school systems.

“I think Milwaukee has a great future and this neighborhood is emblematic of that,” said Norquist.

For more on the Brady Street Forum with John Norquist from TCD contributor Michael Horne, click here.

0 thoughts on “John Norquist discusses urban schools at Brady Street Forum”

  1. Anonymous says:

    What school-choicers who complain about “monopoly” public schools miss is that governance of that “monopoly” is by public election, aka choice, of board members – far more accountability than a clergy or corporate chosen administration that can’t be removed by parents voting.

    And, the weakening by school “choice” of over a century of building professionalism into a support system for constantly-improving public schools has not resulted in overall improved results, especially when compared to our international competitors. It’s time to recognize that the choice scheme has failed. Remember when parochial schools were closing because public schools were of such high quality? Then Ernie Norquist got his son waxing nostalgic about religious schools which fed into Jane Bradley Petitt’s Bradley Foundation anti-teacher union agenda – all in service to state-less corporations who moved off-shore, supporting our international adversaries.

    When do we begin to dare calling it treason?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Norquist is just running his ideological non-sense about schools. The “choice” voucher program has been a failure. In the latest DPI report, the voucher program continues, after all these years, after all the kids the kick out and go back to MPS, to still be performing worse. The comparison with universities is ridiculous. We just have to see what is happening in the tech college system where the private new tech schools have been a disaster for students are being investigated by the federal government.

    Norquist wants cities to capture middle and upper middle class parents. OK, Milwaukee schools can do that. However, not without segregation by class, race and educational ability. The Voucher program is intensely segregated, more so that MPS.

    Unfortunately your author raises no serious questions.

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