John Norquist discusses urban schools at Brady Street Forum
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.”
“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.