John Norquist: Our school vouchers are working

From a speech by the Mayor of Milwaukee to the Reform Conference on public policy in London

Wednesday 09 April 2003 00:00 BST

In Milwaukee, where I have been Mayor since 1988, parents on low incomes are given vouchers to send their children to the school they want. One basic element has to be present: parents able to follow their instincts and choose the best school for their child. If they can do that, it will have a beneficial effect on their child's education, and on society at large.

In urban America, people with money evacuate the cities to the suburbs where they are able to choose better schools. The less well-off are left behind, with devastating effects on the children. It is an "educational finance monopoly" where the Government has power over money, not the parents.

In Milwaukee, we have 11,000 students out of 112,000 participating in our school choice programme. School choice originated from problems with school "bussing", where children from minorities were being sent across the city each day just to qualify for special aid. Children in one district were being bussed to 104 different districts, without any say in which school they went to. The rebellion against this system came from African-American parents who were tired of being pushed around.

There are no rational reasons to oppose school choice. Employees of public school systems oppose it because they are afraid of not being chosen by parents. Education is too important to be focused on the job security of those in the profession, though. It should be focused on the needs of the child. It is not enough just to try harder with the existing system, or to wish that it would improve. The effect of that is for children, and indeed whole cities, to be left behind.

School choice is working in Milwaukee. Not even the teachers' union is trying to dismantle it any more.

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