John Norquist and the Lessons of School Choice

Bill Steigerwald

1/14/2008 1:28:30 PM - Bill Steigerwald

One of several things Democrat John O. Norquist became famous for during his four terms as mayor of Milwaukee was his enthusiastic implementation of a school-voucher system for his city.

The popularity of the school-choice program, which started in 1991 with 1,500 students and now serves more than 12,000 of the city's roughly 110,000 students, has helped to reverse Milwaukee’s population decline, Norquist says. It has lured new residents to the city of 602,000 and it has kept many families from leaving for the suburbs when their kids hit school age.

Norquist is currently the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, where he was Thursday, Jan. 10, when I spoke with him by telephone.

Q: Most big-city mayors -- who are mostly Democrats -- want nothing to do with school choice. Why do you favor it?

A: I believe that it’s fundamentally good for cities. It reveals the advantages of cities that you can see with other goods and services. Big cities are the places where you are most likely to find the best choice of restaurants -- to get more mundane, legal services, banking services, universities. Pittsburgh’s a good example with Carnegie Mellon, Pitt and other universities and colleges that are concentrated in the city. Then you get to K-12 education.

If you go by the ACT scores, for example, North Dakota is the best place. If you were picking the best university, North Dakota State might have some appeal. But I think Harvard would probably edge them out. But somehow the natural economic advantage of the city to produce a variety of high-quality goods and services gets undermined when you have the system the U.S.  has with the government school monopoly over the K-12 money ... . It gets disabled in the K-12 situation. A lot of people want to be in New York City. Just look at the real estate prices and the hotel room rates. People want to be there. But when you come down to the New York public school system, people aren’t moving to New York for that.

Q: Do you like vouchers because the idea of choice and competition naturally appeals to you or because you’ve seen the program work in Milwaukee?

A: I was for vouchers before we established them in Milwaukee. The reason it appeals to me is that it’s good for the city, the parents and the kids to have more choices available. Under the old system, before the vouchers, people would shop for school districts. If they had resources, they would tend to move to the school district that was most likely to have the best situation for their kid, which unfortunately often meant moving away from people that were low income.

When I was mayor of Milwaukee, I wanted people to live in the city -- to want to be in the city -- so the city would be prosperous. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for Milwaukee or to look at it as some sort of pathological social problem. I wanted them to look at it as a place where they could get what they wanted in life. So changing the schools was really important and just trying harder under the monopoly system didn’t work.

Q: How does the voucher system in Milwaukee work?

A:  With school choice there are all kinds of options under Milwaukee’s system. You’ve got the public schools. Regardless of race, you can send your kids to schools in the suburbs and still live in the city. You can send your kids to a voucher-supported private school, to a chartered private school. There are all kinds of options. Milwaukee’s become a place with a variety of choices. The perception is that there are enough positive choices that you don’t automatically decide to leave the city when you have school-age kids.

Q: How much money do students get in their voucher?

A: They get about the same as the state school-aid amount -- roughly about $8,000.

Q: There are about 130,000 students in voucher programs in 13 states and Washington, D.C. Which ones work best?

A: The one in D.C. and the one in Milwaukee are the ones that are closest to the ones Milton Friedman was talking about. The ones in Florida are based on a school failing and then the students have choice. That’s better than not having choice, but I think it sort of makes choice like it’s a punishment for public schools. It’s not about the parents; it’s about punishing the public schools. That doesn’t work very well.

Under Friedman’s theories, which he promulgated in the early 1950s, you want the money to follow the preference of the parent -- all parents, regardless of income, ideally, to have their children have a shot at being in the school they think is best for them: private, public or parochial. Milwaukee and D.C. come closest to that. In Cleveland, the number of students is so limited in the choice program that it’s ended up being totally by lottery, so the choice mechanism gets disabled. That’s why it was so important for the cap to come off the program in Milwaukee. They were about to hit the 13,000 cap and now I think the cap is up to 19,000 students.

Q: I’ve always said the best way for Pittsburgh to reverse its incredible population drain, which is leading the country, is to blow up its public schools and give a $10,000 voucher to anyone who wants to go to school in the city and see what happens. You’d have more people pouring into the city than you could handle.

A: You would. I wouldn’t blow up the public schools. The Milwaukee public schools have improved because of choice and I also think the Catholic schools and Lutheran schools (there are 22 Lutheran schools in the city) have had to get better. At first, the Catholics had the idea that, “Oh, our education is so great. Now kids have vouchers and they’ll come flocking to our schools.” Well, they did at first -- but not uncritically. If parents aren’t getting what they want out of Catholic school, they’ll go public, they’ll go Lutheran, they’ll go private nonreligious. They’ll go where they want to go.

It’s interesting the way privates have had to get better at their game under this system. And there are public schools that are really good and the system now has a reason to create more of those opportunities. The numbers on achievement cores have not been dramatic; it’s been slightly better for both public schools and the privates. But the parents love it. They love the system. They have much more control over finding what they want.  It would really help Pittsburgh to do this.

Q: Does a voucher program make public school systems get leaner and meaner and smarter?

A: I don’t think it makes them necessarily get leaner. It makes them responsive to parents. You want the parent to choose you. One thing that changes dramatically with a voucher program is that the focus changes to individual schools. If you are a Milwaukee parent now, you don’t really think so much about choosing between the Milwaukee public school system or the Catholic system. Now, it’s “What school do you want to go to?” It’s much more about the school and much less about the system -- any system.

Another interesting angle is that the teachers who are really good, who have a reputation of being good with parents, are in great demand. Some of them move within systems. They get “star” pay. It used to be that the union focused on severance pay and pensions. Now, because of our dynamic system, they’re focusing on classroom prep time and on paying star teachers more so they don’t leave public schools and go to private schools.

Private schools are doing the same thing. They’re saying, “This teacher is really great, this is somebody bringing kids into the school. We need to pay this person more money.” In Milwaukee, there’s now a market for star teachers where before there wasn’t. Now the really good teachers don’t want the bad teachers around, because they’re chasing people away from their schools.

Q: Do you think you’ll see the day when anything approaching a genuine free marketplace in public education will exist in a major American city?

A: Yes. Because the United States is the outlier -- it’s the place that is strange.  All of the Western European countries and Canada have school choice. They don’t always call it vouchers but they have it. If you lived in Winnipeg you could go to any private, public or parochial school and the province pays. They have choice. They have choice in Sweden -- socialist Sweden has choice:  vouchers for going to religious schools, private schools, public schools. Only the United States has this system where all the money just goes to the government-owned schools. It’s unusual. It’s weird. It’s not sustainable in the long run. Eventually choice will catch on.